Hunting for Snarkes at Lyme Regis.
YES, we must go somewhere during these cruel north-easterly winds. We must leave the flowers that will blow in spite of them, the tulips, the polyanthuses, the crimson-and-white daisies that fill our suburban garden with beauty we cannot enjoy. We must leave the golden leaves that so reluctantly come forth to the bitter air, and, as the now famous Jane Austen used playfully to say, mindful no doubt of its evil character, "this north-eastern being equally against our skin and conscience," we must seek a shelter from its cutting breath. Let us go to Lyme Regis, a place that she has immortalised, and there, if the guide-books are to be trusted, we may walk on the sands and parade, or sit and bask in the sunshine, if haply we can get any, even in the midst of the Blackthorn winter, with impunity. There also we may have the amusement of testing her proverbial accuracy, and of tracing the steps of that party, and ascertaining the precise spot of that accident which has made the Cobb more famous than any wonders of its construction. Hunting for snarkes is a very pleasant occupation if you do but make believe strong enough, and Jane Austen's creatures shall be realities to us as long as we stay at Lyme Regis.
We happened also to know that when Mr. Tennyson went there, and his friends wanted to show him the precise spot where the Duke of Monmouth landed, he exclaimed with an indignation equally creditable to his own genius and to hers, "Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me that precise spot where Louise Musgrave fell."
Every one must surely perceive that to ascertain that precise spot and satisfy his most laudable curiosity was an object worthy of our best endeavours and of our highest ambition. To Lyme Regis therefore, one very cold day in the middle of last May, we went, and I may as well say at once that we found it as to warmth entirely satisfactory. The hill which rises behind the town quite shelters it from north wind, and as it curves to the east and joins the pretty line of cliffs which sweeps almost round to Portland Island, it scarcely feels even the north-easterns. Indeed, the parade is only open to winds that blow from the south, south-east, or south-west, especially south-east, and this fact was our first proof of Jane Austen's accuracy, for she speaks of the bloom in Anne Elliot's face being produced by the "fine south-easterly wind" she had been meeting.
The railway carried us as far as Axminster, where, the station being under repair, we had to wait in the dust and the wind whilst a fly was brought from the town, and very glad we were when it arrived, although it proved nothing better than a rough kind of omnibus, which seemed so entirely on its last legs, or rather wheels, that they had to be hammered together before we could start. However, it conveyed us in safety, and we were soon dragging down the "long steep hill" by which Lyme is entered. Indeed, of the six miles which stretch between it and Axminster, it seemed to us that having ascended for about one, we descended all the remaining five. We did not enter the town, but took a road, which leaving it on our left took us down the steepest and stoniest pitch we had as yet encountered, at the bottom of which we turned into a little bit of street, so narrow there was only just room for the carriage to pass, out of which we descended on the esplanade and drew up at our lodgings. And such lodgings! Surely no other town but Lyme could have supplied them. They were very clean, and the cooking and attendance were good, but the house was nothing but a queer ramshackle cottage with low rooms and small windows, and a staircase so narrow and steep and twisted, and withal dark, that it was a service of danger to get up and down it. Then there were two ground floors, one in its proper place, containing kitchen entrance and dining-room, and the other at the top of the house, containing the bedrooms and back door, which latter opened on to the green hill behind. The drawing-room, which by comparison with the rest might be called spacious, was on the middle, and from thence we had a charming view of the sea and harbour and Cobb, on one side, and of the very pretty chain of eastern cliffs on the other. The pier was exactly opposite, and our first conviction was that we were in the very house which the Harvilles occupied. The situation answered precisely. Captain Benwick must have rushed past its window when flying for the doctor, and Captain Harville must have seen him. The dining-room, too, was so small, that only "those whose invitations came from the heart" could have supposed it possible to ask their friends to dine in it. Nothing could fit better, and we counted the bedrooms and arranged the party, and settled which was the chamber to which Louise Musgrave was carried, when the word "carried" struck us all dumb. That dreadful staircase; could any man, even though a sailor, have carried any young lady up that dark and crooked ladder?—and not only dark and crooked, but with a projecting beam in the darkest corner, from which one could scarcely save one's own head. She might, indeed, have been carried up the steps on the outside of the house and so in at the back door, as our boxes had been, there being no other way of getting them into our rooms; but we dared not suppose so unusual a mode of entrance, and were reluctantly obliged to give up the idea.
In the bit of narrow street through which we had passed there was a small house equally suitable in situation, in which we afterwards settled the Harvilles, and as we could not examine its internal arrangements, and thereby prove it unfit, there they were when we left Lyme.
There should be method and order even in snarke-hunting, and we determined to keep our Cobb investigations until the last, agreeing that when we had done all we could to ascertain these more important localities, we would give the Duke of Monmouth a turn, and endeavour to discover the precise stone on which he knelt in thanksgiving for that safe landing which it would have been better for him, and far better for Lyme, had he never effected.
Our first step was to go to the library to get 'Persuasion'—that is, if we could, about which we had some doubt; for some few years ago, when in Bath, being anxious to amuse ourselves with verifying all the places and streets, &c., mentioned in it and in 'Northanger Abbey,' we turned into a library close to Milsom Street, and asked for the volume, we were told not only that they had not got it, but had never even heard of Jane Austen! And what was still worse, and hurt our feelings more, was that when we sought the inn which her genius has made so memorable, though we indeed found it, lo and behold! it was no longer the White Hart, it had sunk into the Queen, or the Royal Hotel, or something equally commonplace. It was some consolation to discover the displaced old sign, the veritable gold-collared white hart standing in an obscure corner not very far off. Lyme, however, proved more grateful. The library not only contained the volume, but some one had added to its title, "A Story of the Cobb." By its help we could trace the movements of the whole party through those two eventful days. Starting from our own lodgings we pursued them along the sands up the narrow steps leading from the shore, on which Mr. Elliot drew back to leave room for his cousin to pass, and from thence past the now shut up and deserted looking assembly-rooms, and into the main street of the town, which still seems "hurrying into the sea," and so back towards their hotel; but here we lost them, for, alas! there are now three or four inns, all looking pretty much equally respectable, almost touching each other, any one of which might have been the one at which they put up. For they have all adjacent stable-yards, out of which Mr. Elliot could have driven, and all have windows from which he could have been seen. It was some comfort to feel that it was just the same when she wrote, for she only says "one of the inns," as if there were several equally good as there are now.
We could not pass the assembly-rooms without remembering that she had danced in them, for at the time of her visit to Lyme she was only twenty-eight; young and pretty enough still to attract the admiring eyes of strangers, and to secure her more partners than she in her moderation wanted. Where she and her father and mother lodged in Lyme is not known; they were there in the September of 1804. Either just before or after this they were at Teignmouth, where they had lodgings in a house called "Great Bella Vista," which is still standing, and bears the same fantastic name. It is rather remarkable that there should be no allusion in any of her works to this latter place, unless it be in 'Sense and Sensibility,' which, though written before 1804, was not published until afterwards. Her description of the situation of Barten Cottage is that of one who had seen the country "four miles north of Exeter," as no doubt in passing from Bath to Teignmouth, or from Teignmouth to Bath, she had done, and it might have been retouched when preparing the MS. for publication. Of this visit to Devonshire there is no mention in the Life written by her nephew a few years ago.
Of course every one knows the Cobb. It was first constructed two years after the accession of Edward III., and then consisted only of wooden piles incapable of long resisting the force of the storms which swept over them. Of wood, however, it continued to be remade as often as destroyed, until the time of James I., when somebody had the genius to build it of stone. The first walk we took upon it, we were almost disappointed to find it, as we supposed, so easy to satisfy Mr. Tennyson's curiosity, for halfway along is a double flight of steep steps leading from the upper to the lower Cobb, which exactly answered to the account, being in that part which is now undoubtedly the new end. The objection to which they were open was, that they were a double flight, and the sentence seems to imply but one; the words are, "they were all contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight." We thought Jane Austen would have written "one of the steep flights," had she had a double staircase in her mind, and the more we pondered, the more than conviction grew on us. We turned, therefore, to another rougher and steeper set of steps farther along the Cobb.
The Cobb is nearly seven hundred feet in length, and these steps are about two hundred from its head. They also lead from the upper to the lower, at a part where the stones of the latter are so rough and uneven—it made one shudder to think of falling upon them. Besides, these were in that part which was rebuilt in 1792, and was undoubtedly older than the other end. The guide-books also complicated the matter still further, for they told us that in 1817 a storm carried away a great part, and that another, much more severe, in 1824, demolished nearly three hundred feet of it. These facts made it clear to us that we never could settle our question unless we could ascertain what parts had been destroyed by these tempests. The double steps and the single are so far apart that three hundred feet might have been swept away and left them both untouched. But had it? The tradition of such a storm as that in 1824 would be sure to be preserved in the harbour; we had heard of it before, when at Sidmouth, where it was spoken of as "the great storm," and we were shown the red roots of what had once been a huge red sandstone cliff, called the Chit Rock, which had been swept away by it. Any sailor would know all about it; so seeing a remarkably fine-looking preventive man coming along with his telescope under his arm, we stopped him, and, like Catherine Morland, asked what we wanted to be told. In a moment all doubt was settled. The part of the Cobb swept away by the tempest of '24 reached from a few feet from the beginning to the old part of 1792. Nor did the destruction it worked end with the Cobb. It drove out of the harbours all the vessels and boats which crowded it, and had run in there hoping for shelter and safety. It beat down several houses, buildings, and wharfs, destroyed every step of the walk from the assembly-rooms to the pier, and the whole side of a street reaching from the fish-market to the gun cliff. It lasted many hours, and when it ceased it left poor Lyme a wreck, some of its inhabitants ruined, and many more impoverished. It was after this storm that what is now the new part of the Cobb, with its double flight of steps, was built. With it, therefore, we could have nothing to do. This tempest swept away all the work done after that of 1817. But the storm of that year carried away all that was really old; until that date the Cobb consisted of that very handsome upper end built in 1792, and the lower, or town end, some of which was more than a hundred years older. Hence it is clear that when Jane Austen visited Lyme, in 1804, what is the old Cobb to us was the new Cobb to her, and the rough single flight of steps which still exists in it was the flight down which Louise Musgrave jumped, and at the foot of which she fell. This is getting as near to the precise spot as possible, and we may surely say Q. E. D. To those who inspect it, it must be as it is to us, a source of wonder that Captain Wentworth should have allowed her to jump from such steps down to such ground. It almost exceeds credibility that he should have suffered it, or that her brother should have stood by and not remonstrated.
As for the memorials of the Duke of Monmouth, they did not offer us any sport at all. The pier, as it stands now, is an entirely recent work, and of that on which he landed there is not a trace. Moreover, the various rebuildings of the Cobb which have taken place since his day have probably left not a stone of that Cobb upon which Judge Jefferies caused so many of his poor unhappy followers to be hanged. The house in which he slept long survived, and from an old engraving we have seen it must have been a handsome and interesting building. It was, however, destroyed in 1844 by fire, which consumed also some forty other houses. Nothing, therefore, remains to Lyme of any historical interest. The railways have brought other and prettier places within easier reach, and any revival of her importance and prosperity does not seem probable. She ought to be dear, however, to the hearts of all geologists, for out of her blue lias cliffs came the first of the ichthyosauri and the plesiosauri found in this country, and still when her rocks are blasted or there is a fresh landslip some pre-Adamite reliques may be found. Once they might have been picked up amongst the shingle; but the pickers-up have been so numerous there are none left worth stooping for. However, I should like to say a word to recommend that particular corner of Devonshire to the notice of artists. I say Devonshire, because Lyme is only one mile from that county, and its greatest beauties lie over the boundary. I think any one who would take Jane Austen's advice and go to Pinhay would find himself abundantly rewarded, and that he might work there for days without exhausting its beauties.
The cliffs from Lyme to Sidmouth offer also a most remarkable variety of tint. At Lyme, as has been before mentioned, they are mainly of blue lias, at Seaton they are of chalk and red marl, at Beer they are of chalk alone, at Sidmouth they are of chalk and red sandstone. Beautiful as are the greys and purples that the blue lias changes into, they offer a much smaller variety of colour than do the red sandstone of Sidmouth. These range from yellow and light red to the deepest ensanguined browns, and their gorgeous hues are often reflected in the waves which break and curdle into rose-coloured tints as they ebb and flow. Then the greys that form their shadows are so exquisite, the blue mists that gather in their hollows, the white clouds which crown their heads or hang about their peaks, are so beautiful, that they surely deserve that some artist should paint their loveliness. The Peak Hills also are splendid. Standing halfway up one you have a foreground of green turf with the red hill rising up to the clouds on your right, from which you are separated by a deep chasm of some three hundred feet, at the bottom of which is the sea. In front rises the other and higher Peak Hill, yellow and red, and grey and purple, with here and there a streak of green turf or a patch of scrub—and beyond that a long line of cliffs, of which the very palest and most distant are almost at Torquay. One or two detached rocks stand out of the base, over which the waves break, and around which the sea-gulls are perpetually flying. All this forms a picture, truly of all the tints of the rainbow never to be forgotten. But enough of the rocks. Let me say a word of sweeter and tenderer beauties.
I should like to send every one with a sore heart or a weary brain to drive about the lanes of Devonshire in the early summer. There is not a bank which is not a feast of beauty—beauty, not awful like that of the cliffs, not melancholy like that of the moaning sea, but like that of childhood, loving and pure as if it were fresh from heaven. There are, no doubt, in many places rare ferns and rare plants, but it is not they that make the charm. No. It is the thousands of primroses, the fields and beds of blue hyacinths, the masses of red campion, all growing together in every hedgerow and upon every bank; in the midst of clusters of shining harts-tongues, and clumps of asplenium, mingled with the beautiful cut-leaved ivy and the yellow green spurge, and everywhere sprinkled over with the silver stars of the elegant little white stitchwort. It is these common things growing in such wonderful profusion that make a beauty that steals into your heart and soothes and comforts it like a word of love—a beauty which, like the songs of the birds, fills you with an emotion you cannot clothe in words—redolent of the tenderness which makes the sparrows its care and bids us behold "the lilies of the field."
"F.C.L." [Lefroy, Fanny Caroline.] "Hunting for Snarkes at Lyme Regis." Temple Bar 57 (1879): 391-397.