Littell's Living Age/Volume 131/Issue 1688/A Drive in Devonshire

From The Spectator.


Lyme Regis is a precipitous place, and associated with precipitate people. Its principal street seems, as Miss Austen says, to hurry down into the water; the cliffs in the neighborhood are fertile in landslips; indeed, much of the shore is now a lovely wilderness of crumbled cliff, overgrown with the finest sward, and ferns, and shrubs. It was at Lyme that Monmouth landed when he hurried into his premature revolution; and at Lyme that Louisa Musgrove, in Miss Austen's novel, when intending to jump into the arms of Captain Wentworth, fell almost lifeless at the feet of Captain Benwick, and by consenting to console the latter for his recent grief, set the former free to return to his allegiance to Anne Elliot Macaulay speaks of the town as a "small knot of steep and narrow alleys, lying on a coast, wild, rocky, and beaten by a stormy sea," — not, I think, a very happy description, for on the whole Lyme is contained in its single street, which, though as steep as a street can be without spilling its inhabitants into the water, is wide, bright, and picturesque. I wonder where exactly it was that Monmouth landed, drew his sword, and kneeled to thank God "for having preserved the friends of liberty and pure religion from the perils of the sea," before "leading them over the cliffs into the town." It can hardly have been on the side of Pinney, for the cliffs there are too steep. Can it have been in pretty little Charmouth, where the Char bends and wriggles about till it can find a channel through the shelving and mounded beach into the sea, and where a great break in the line of cliffs opens out the green uplands and wooded slopes of Wootton, through which the pretty stream bubbles away so pleasantly? I wonder why Monmouth did not land at the Cobb itself, which, according to Macaulay, is as old as the Plantagenets, though since Monmouth's time, and even, I take it, since Miss Austen's, that picturesquely curving breakwater has been rendered considerably more solid and convenient. Perhaps he wanted to marshal his men before he tried the temper of the town, enthusiastic as it is said to have been in his cause. For us, we did not turn a single thought on Monmouth and his ill-fated precipitateness; we were thinking too much of that other bit of precipitateness, belonging to the realm of fiction, instead of that of history, and therefore so much easier to realize, invented by the skilful novelist, not only for the purpose of smoothing the way to her pleasantest heroine's happiness, but also in order to set off the mild and pensive beauty of that heroine's certainly not too impetuous character. Were we, perhaps, in the very room where the Uppercross party's merriment attracted the envy of Mr. Elliot — the unknown and unknowing cousin — as he sat alone, wishing he had any excuse for making their acquaintance? Here, at any rate, as we turned the corner of the street to the beach, was the very spot where Mr. Elliot's glance of admiration at Anne, as she returned glowing from her windy November morning's walk, revived Captain Wentworth's old ardor of feeling, and prepared the way for his return to his senses. Here, too, were the Assembly Rooms, which the Musgrove party naturally found lifeless in November, and which appeared, as far as we could see, equally lifeless in August, also. Here, again, it was that Captain Benwick came flying by to fetch the surgeon for the insensible Louisa. And here, surely, close on the Cobb, was that very minute house of Captain Harville's which his ingenuity fitted with all sorts of contrivances to make up for the smallness of the space and the deficiences of the lodging-house furniture. Indeed, some of those contrivances appeared to be extant still. We half expected to meet the very party on the Cobb, forgetting that Anne Elliot — I should say, Mrs. Wentworth, that "too good, too excellent creature," as she is called by her lover in the soberly passionate language of the beginning of the century — must, if still living, be eighty-seven this year, and her husband well on into the nineties, while even Louisa, now Mrs. Benwick, if indeed her constitution has survived so long that shock which, long after her convalescence, made her "start and wriggle like a young dabchick" whenever a door banged, is at least fourscore. Indeed, those small children who take such pleasure in finding all the possible ways of ascending and descending between the upper and lower Cobb cannot possibly be more nearly related to these antique heroines than as grandchildren or great-grand-children. And if that rather commonplace lady, who sits at the very end of the Cobb, gazing at the now discolored and rising sea, is Mrs. Benwick's daughter, already past middle age, recalling the story of her mother's accident and the change it made in her destiny, there is in her certainly more of the solid Musgrove than of the romantic temperament of the father who loved to quote Byronic addresses to the dark-blue waves. It is, indeed, but too certain that, if all the actors in that little tragicomedy had been as real as they are easily realized, they would most likely before this have made their bow and final exeunt, like the woman to whose delicate genius they owe their curiously strong hold on our imaginations. We, unfortunately, had no similar adventures. Perhaps for us the time, even for Miss Austen's mild romance, is past. But when, in a glorious August night, we turned the corner where Anne Elliot's beauty gained the admiring glances of her cousin and Captain Wentworth, and were suddenly met full in the face by the "long glory" of the autumn moon shining down the sea, and little Billie, gently waving his yellow tail, — itself apparently a sheaf of moonbeams,— stood studying the glittering line which terminated so picturesquely in himself, I know that admiring glances were bent upon him, which might well have rivalled the fervor of Mr. Elliot's or Captain Wentworth's glance at the heroine of "Persuasion." The genius of Landseer would have needed the aid of the genius of Turner properly to render the scene. A young friend of mine, an artist, who will yet make his power felt in the world of art, assures me that there can be no genuine picture without a "human interest" at the centre of it. Would not a canine interest do? Certainly it seemed to me that that long shaft of light which led up to little Billie, was a fit subject for the grandest art.

There is tolerably good evidence that the scenery of Lyme had made more impression on Miss Austen's imagination than that of any other part of England known to her. She speaks of the wilderness of fern, and rock, and tree among the ruined cliffs between Lyme and Pinney — the great landslip beyond had not happened in her time — with something like rapture, a state of mind which, to her sober though vivid nature, was as rare as it must have been delightful. Indeed, those were not the days of popular devotion to natural beauty. Wordsworth was only beginning to educate the English imagination; Ruskin was not yet; and the religion of natural beauty was in its infancy; Miss Austen herself does not, I think, give us a single bit of fine scenery-painting in all her novels. But she does go out of her way for the space of a single page to indulge in a sort of reverie of delight over the loveliness of Lyme and its neighborhood, though she does not describe it: and I think she must have felt the latent poetry in her so far stirred by the deep-blue seas and crumbling cliffs of Lyme, as to make it seem to her a specially fit scene in which to place that final triumph of the affections over a cold and worldly prudence which is the subject of "Persuasion."