Deborah Yaffe

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Retracing Louisa's steps

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 27 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s characters and situations feel so real to us that it’s easy to overlook the fact that many of her stories are set in entirely fictitious places. Highbury, Meryton, Kellynch: all completely made up, despite efforts to “prove” that Sanditon is actually the southeast English town of Hastings, or that Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is based on this or that real-life stately home.


Austen creates this illusion of realism in part by sending characters who live in fictional locales on visits to real ones – places like Bath, London, Portsmouth, or Box Hill. (The website of the Jane Austen Society of North America includes a useful breakdown of real and fictitious sites in the novels.)


One of the most memorable of the real-life venues that appear in Austen’s work is Lyme Regis, the site of Louisa Musgrove’s consequential fall halfway through Persuasion. Not surprisingly, Janeites have long been eager to view the precise “steep flight” of steps on the Cobb, Lyme’s famous seawall, where Louisa insists on being “jumped down” by Captain Wentworth and is rewarded with a severe concussion and the moony, poetry-loving Captain Benwick -- a consolation prize if ever there was one.


Atop the Cobb in Lyme Regis


Earlier this month, one Janeite adventurer, British-based writer Catherine Batac Walder, chronicled her efforts to determine which of three possible candidates is the staircase Austen had in mind when she described Louisa’s fall. Seven years ago, when I visited Lyme with a JASNA tour group while researching Among the Janeites, our tour guide rehashed the same debate.


Just as I did, Walder found all three sets of stairs less precarious than the downward-sloping Cobb itself, where the intrepid walker perched on its surface is exposed to the buffeting of sea breezes, with nary a railing or handhold in sight. Still, Lyme is a beautiful and atmospheric place: it’s not hard to understand why Austen, who visited twice with her family, decided to embed this real-life location in the imaginary geography of her last completed novel.


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