Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

words : I have learned from Sir J. Carr that there is no Government House at Gibraltar-I must alter it to the Commissioner's.' The result of this perfect fidelity in all matters of concrete fact is to give the scene she depicts a singularly substantial actuality, testifying to the fundamental brainwork which Rossetti said made all the difference between a good work of art and an inferior one. The outline is always firm, and there is never the least touch of that desultory vagueness which is the last infirmity of the amateur.

In 1804, when she was twenty-nine years old, Jane Austen went with her father and mother to stay at Lyme Regis. The little town, with the addition of a few dwellings of greater pretensions, must be much the same as it was in Jane Austen's day. It clusters and straggles, with its grey roofs and white-fronted houses, looking like the barnacles on a sea-logged baulk of timber, on a declivity of the high Dorsetshire Downs, which here fall steeply to the sea ; to the east looms a row of great headlands, breaking off abruptly seawards in lofty cliffs, here of yellow sandstone, there of dark and crumbling shale. The streams soak out through oozy beds of blue lias, crammed with fossils, the pale whorls of ammonites, and the bones of extinct sea-monsters. The whole of the steep sea-front is for ever tending to slide and splinter itself away into the sea ; and west of Lyme Regis there is a whole Paradise of miniature ravines, sheltered dingles, and grassy glades, intersected by winding tracks, their banks full of iris and primrose and hart’s-tongue fern, with bold white chalky bluffs standing out over the thickets, the only sound the cry of wheeling gulls, or the bleating of sheep in the high hill pastures, with the murmurous undertone of leaves shaken by fitful breezes, or the monotonous pulse of the sea lapping on the shingly beach below.

Almost the only sentiment with which Miss Austen allowed herself to dally was the sentiment of landscape ; love has its businesslike side in her hands, and, however sincere the emotion, the shadow of settlements falls not ungratefully across the page ; but. her heroines take solitary walks by autumnal groves and wintry shrubberies, and abandon themselves with luxurious melancholy to the pensive influences of the scene.

But here, at Lyme, her pen seems to falter, and she appears unable to do justice to the romance of the landscape :

The scenes in its neighbourhood (she writes in ‘Persuasion '], Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands

[ocr errors]

make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in un wearied contemplation ; the wooded varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and above all, Pinny (now spelt Pinhay), with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth, declare that many a generation must have passed away, since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight.

There is something frigid, even inartistic, about the above description, as though the writer had been unable to deal with her subject, and had collapsed into purely conventional symbols of admiration. Perhaps we can trace in the languid paragraphs and the stilted epithets something of the shadow of ill-health. “Persuasion' was written in 1816, twelve years after the visit to Lyme, and it was the last book Miss Austen completed. She was already much enfeebled in the spring of that year, and was living the life of an invalid, though suffering little discomfort, and with every reasonable hope of recovery ; but before a year had elapsed from the time when ‘Persuasion 'was finished, she had breathed her last,

A humorous letter written by Miss Austen to her inseparable ally, her elder sister Cassandra, has been preserved and published, describing the incidents of their stay at Lyme. They settled in lodgings :

The servants behave very well (she writes) and make no difficulties, though certainly nothing can exceed the inonvenience of the offices, except the general dirtiness of the house and furniture and all its inhabitants. I endeavour as far as I can to supply your place, and to be useful, and keep things in order. I detect dirt in the water decanters, as fast as I can, and keep everything as it was under your administration.

Lyme had its round of simple gaieties and festivities in those times. Nowadays the English tourist is apt to practise a certain fastidious seclusion, to insist on his own table in the coffee-room, to consider himself a visitor and his fellow-guest a tripper. But in those days Lyme, like Bath, had its routs and dances. Miss Austen describes how they went to the public ball at eight o'clock, how her father stayed contentedly for over an hour, and then walked home by himself; while she and her mother stayed till ten o'clock. Miss Jane danced two dances, and adds demurely that if she had stayed later she would have had a prospect of another partner ; 'an odd-looking man who had been eyeing me for some time, and at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again.' This gentleman turned out to be the representative of haut ton among the residents, son of an Irish viscount. Miss

Austen adds with a touch of asperity that he and his wife were 'both queer-looking people, just fit to be quality at Lyme.'

But the chief interest of Lyme lies in the homely little pier of stone called, for some unknown reason, the “Cobb. There are but few havens along that rugged iron-bound coast, with its bank of abraded shingle; and in times immemorial the natives of Lyme constructed, with infinite difficulty, taking advantage of a low reef of rocks, a tiny seaport protected by two long moles of stone, of fantastic outline, somewhat resembling the capital letter Q turned upside down, the circle representing the harbour and the tail being the breakwater wriggling seawards. The westerly limb of the Cobb is a low broad pier of masonry with a solid parapet, affording a shelter from boisterous breezes, under the lee of which it is possible to walk with an agreeable sense of security, while the breakers lash the sea-wall and flick their spray overhead. In two places, flights of rough stone steps lead from the lower part of the pier to the top of the parapet, which affords a breezy and precarious promenade.

The present Cobb is not the identical one on which Miss Austen's eyes rested, though it no doubt preserves its outlines, and probably much of the original stonework; but, the former pier having been destroyed by a violent storm in 1826, the present structure was finished, according to a brass plate set in the alcove beneath the steps that lead up to the parapet, under the superintendence of Lieutenant Colonel Fanshaw, R.E., at the request of the MasterGeneral, at the expense of 17,3371. Os. 91d.

It was at the Cobb that on June 10, 1685, the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth effected a landing with his little band of followers, and was conducted by an admiring crowd wearing green boughs in their hats, with the women scattering flowers, to the George Inn, to hoist a blue flag and read his manifesto. Daniel Defoe and Fletcher of Saltoun were among his new adherents, while the Mayor of Lyme posted off to Exeter to take the news to the Duke of Albemarle.

But this is no place to linger over historical memories ; as Tennyson said when he visited Lyme, 'Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth, but take me to the exact place where Louisa Musgrove fell!'

Every reader of 'Persuasion 'will remember the pleasant party that drove seventeen miles in the middle of November to Lyme Regis from Uppercross. The travellers were Captain Wentworth, Charles Hayter, Charles and Mary Musgrove, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, and Anne Elliot. They went to pay a visit to Captain Harville and his wife. They arrived at midday, ordered dinner, and went to walk on the Cobb.

The party find Captain Harville with his wife and children domiciled at Lyme in a small house at the foot of an ancient pier of unknown date. The place is not difficult to identify. The tiny harbour is protected on the west by the Cobb itself, and on the east by a small stone pier, which can only be approached at low water. This is the only pier in the place, and Captain Harvile's house must thus have been one of the little group of houses which clusters together close to the harbour, and forms a small detached suburb of Lyme, separated from the town by the Esplanade, above which lie the deserted gardens of an old marine villa, now the Alexandra Hotel. There is here an old inn named The Standard, which appears to be an eighteenth-century house of some pretensions, now divided into tenements, which evidently had at one time a little walled garden on the seaward side. Here then I believe that we may locate Captain Harville's house ; and this is confirmed by the fact that, after the accident, Louisa is carried to the Harvilles' house as being nearer and more convenient. If there had been at any time a pier nearer to the town, Louisa would have been conveyed straight to the hotel, which is undoubtedly The Three Cups, an old inn of considerable size not far up the main street.

With the Harvilles is domiciled the melancholy and sentimental Captain Benwick, who is mourning the death of his fiancée, the sister of Mrs. Harville, and soothes his melancholy by solitary rambles, and by profuse quotations from the works of Lord Byron and Mr. Scott, which he pours into Anne Elliot's responsive ears.

The party spend two nights at the inn, and on the morning of the last day go for a walk on the Cobb:

There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa ; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks he had had to jump her from the stiles. The sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet made him less willing upon the present occasion ; he did it however. She was safely down, and instantly to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she siniled and said, 'I am determined I will’; he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement of the Lower Cobb and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise ; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of the moment to all who stood around !

Captain Wentworth, who feels responsible for the accident, is overwhelmed with contrition, and Anne mistakes his emotion for the anguish of love. The poor hoyden is conveyed to Captain Harville's house, where her injuries eventually turn out to be less serious than was supposed ; and the party breaks up in distress and sorrow.

The incident plays its part in the development of the story by making Anne think that Captain Wentworth has thus unconsciously betrayed his love for Louisa. As Admiral Croft says, commenting on the affair, “Ay, a very bad business indeed. A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love by breaking his mistress's head, is it not, Miss Elliot ? This is breaking a head and giving a plaster, truly!'

But fate intervenes in the shape of Captain Benwick, who wins Louisa's hand. Captain Wentworth renews his attentions to Anne, and the match is viewed with approval by all the family except by Anne's younger sister, Mary Musgrove, who had gained a step of dignity over her elder sister by her early marriage, but who comforts herself by the reflection that if they can but keep Captain Wentworth from being made a baronet, their respective situations will not be seriously altered.

Now, could there be an incident more exactly illustrative of the actuality of Miss Austen's writing, of the fact that her novels seem to belong more to the region of recorded incident than imagined fiction, than this? On seeing the Cobb, and endeavouring to identify the scene of the fall, I found that there were at least three flights of steps upon any one of which the disaster might have occurred. I accordingly went into a stationer's shop, and asked for a picture of the Cobb, adding that I wanted one which would show the scene of Miss Louisa Musgrove's fall. The sprightly lady who attended to me produced two photographs, and said without a smile, ‘This is what we generally sell as the photograph of the place, because visitors believe that it was there that Louisa fell and she pointed to a photograph of a row of worn and ancient steps which I had noticed some way out upon the Cobb parapet. * But,' she added, “it was not really there that the fall took place ; it was from the steps that lead up over the alcove,' and she pushed

a

6

« ZurückWeiter »