Impropriety by the Seaside

Modern day readers of Jane Austen may well be baffled by the scandalous reputation of seaside resorts in Georgian Britain. The word ‘resorts’ refers not to those mega complex hotel monstrosities that can currently be seen ruining the landscape of exotic locales the world over but simply a destination that is an attraction in itself, such as the seaside, and which also provides a society of sorts for visitors. ‘Watering place’ was likewise a term applied to seaside places and also encompassed Bath.

There was without doubt a loosening of propriety within the society of watering places. These towns were public places, while the social activities of London houses and country estates were much more controlled and private in the main. In the country a person was in their private home, in London they were working the season, elsewhere they were on holiday. Acquaintances were made that would never have been made in the stricter regimes of London or the country, familiarities might be allowed and liberties may be taken that similarly could never have been anywhere else. If this seems surprising within the context of Georgian society, well, just think what people will do on holiday these days that they would never do at home. It’s the same mindset.

Bath was a respectable, wealthy town famous for it’s drinking water and healing baths and popular amongst the holidaying classes who were in need of restoration, or did not like or could not afford London for a couple of months. It’s being cheaper and cheerier made Bath an ideal spot for fortune-hunters such as the Thorpe siblings of Northanger Abbey and the scene of Eliza Williams’ acquaintance with Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility, who could live at less expense and worm their way more easily into hearts of unsuspecting folk in the more relaxed society of Bath, than they could in London.

The chief attraction of Bath was the benefits the place had to one’s health, and to ne’re-do-wells no doubt the chief attraction was the bored wives, daughters and nieces of gouty gentleman more occupied with their own ailments than the pleasures of their womenfolk. But at the seaside there were even greater health benefits to be had in sea bathing and (oh god) drinking sea water, and most likely ladies who were even more unoccupied, since there were considerably fewer town things by the seaside to take up their time and interest. And there was sea bathing, and all the sensations and delight such an activity could stir up compared to the otherwise sedate experiences of a Georgian lady. It’s no accident that so many improprieties occur at seaside resorts in Austen’s novels.

Ramsgate

Tom Bertram’s gallivanting in Mansfield Park sees him idling in as many as three seaside places (as well as London and country houses) within the short time frame of the narrative. He races horses at Brighton, he makes the acquaintance of the fashionable and rather weak-headed Yates at Weymouth, who later persuades Julia Bertram to elope with him, and in telling a story of a visit to Ramsgate he gives a description of the kind of impropriety tolerated in watering places. He forms a new acquaintance on the pier, an inappropriate beginning in itself. Mrs Sneyd is ‘surrounded by men’ and the two Miss Sneyds are left to the company of other strange young men. Moreover, it transpires that the youngest Miss Sneyd, though ‘perfectly easy in her manners, and as ready to talk as to listen’ and not demurely attired, is not even ‘out’ in society. An unseemly piece of mismanagement, as ‘Miss Augusta should have a been with her governess’. In other words, she was but a child being made available for the pleasures of men, not unlike Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Georgiana Darcy, Lydia’s predecessor in the schemes of Wickham, was taken to Ramsgate by his co-conspirator Mrs Younge, in order that he may gain access to her while she is unchaperoned, unwatched and without guidance, and be persuaded to elope with him. Ramsgate is a natural choice here, the quieter, more isolated town means fewer eyes on such a wealthy and young lady. Wickham of course fails at Ramsgate with Georgiana due to the lucky arrival of Darcy. Later however, to really seal the deal of Lydia’s seduction, Wickham has as an advantage the largeness and the careless, mindless, raffish, rakish society of Georgian party central: Brighton.

Brighton

Pride & Prejudice’s Wickham wasn’t the only one sexing it up at Brighton, for the town was the darling of the most oversexed personage of the era, Prince George. Throughout the prince’s patronage, especially during the Regency, Brighton was the most decadent, amoral real society in the land. I say ‘real society’ because the demi-monde, the world of courtesans and mistresses, was a thriving one but not ‘society’ as such. Soldiers, sailors, courtiers, nobleman, fortune-seekers, pleasure-seekers, money, fashion, familiarity, balmy summer eves and the invigoratingly fresh and salty air…Brighton was a dangerous place. As Austen well knew, for it becomes the scene of Lydia Bennet’s licentious flirtations with many an officer in Pride and Prejudice, of Wickham’s hedonism and of their elopement together. An elopement even that does not pass honorably with a chaste wedding in Scotland but ends in seduction, and then concealment in London. Brighton, in Mansfield Park comes after the wedding rather than before it. The Rushworths honeymoon in the town with Julia Bertram in tow, an odd place and an odd arrangement unless you consider than the new Mrs Rushworth is likely to want to spend a little time with her tiresome husband as possible. When Sir Thomas sardonically states that his daughters ‘have their pleasures at Brighton’ he alludes to such pleasures as would not be tolerated at Mansfield.

II.

Lyme

While there is indecorousness at Uppercross, foolishness at Kellynch Hall and snobbishness in Bath, the improprieties practiced by almost every character in the first half of Persuasion are capped by the dangerous and interesting events of the novel taking place by the seaside, at Lyme. The careless intimacy between Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove proceeds rapidly at Uppercross and in her child-like admiration of him ‘he had had to jump her from the stiles’ in all of their country walks. In a fervor for the navy and by proxy, the sea, the Miss Musgroves fuel a trip for the Uppercross young people to Lyme, where Wentworth’s closest friends, the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, are quartered. On a farewell walk on the famed Lyme Cobb there are some perilous stairs to be got down and as ‘the sensation was delightful to her’; Louisa is jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. Undoubtedly the sensation of being held in the captain’s hands was more delightful than jumping from heights. Headstrong and infatuated, Louisa insists on jumping again, from higher and with too little notice, and she falls unconscious and concussed onto the pavement. Louisa’s perversely headstrong flight leaves her barely conscious for weeks at Lyme and though she recovers, her near fatal fall alters her temperament, her former boisterousness gone and a quiet, nervous, sober girl emerges from the drama.

On the same trip to Lyme our heroine Anne Elliot twice briefly encounters a gentleman the party later learns to be Mr Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall and Anne’s cousin. His past failure to properly attend the Elliot family, his marriage to a low woman and his disparaging remarks about Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth Elliot had caused a breech between the baronet and his heir. Despite the subsequent reconciliation and intimate acquaintance with the Elliots in Bath, his past life proves to have been  a true representation of his character. With the addition to the narrative of  Anne’s former schoolfellow Mrs Smith and her enlightening stories of her past, the reader learns that Mr Elliot had led a dissipated, thoughtless life, and had contributed to the financial ruin of Mrs Smith’s deceased husband. Though Smith had rated him a very great friend, Elliot had repeatedly refused to act on his widow’s behalf that she may lift herself out of her present poverty.

Shortly after the real Mr Elliot is unveiled tho Anne and the reader,  it transpires that he has seduced and left Bath with Elizabeth’s companion Mrs Clay to get her away from Sir Walter, that he may prevent the baronet from marrying her and producing a son, thereby disinheriting him.

It was told in Lyme that Elliot had traveled from Sidmouth previous to his introduction into the narrative at Lyme and his subsequent appearance in Bath, quite the watering place trail of impropriety.

III.

Weymouth

“Very lucky–marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!–They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! Peculiarly lucky!– for as to any real knowledge of a person’s disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give–it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge.”

What is Frank Churchill doing in Emma (1816) when he makes this statement at the Box Hill Picnic, ridiculing the Eltons, whom this speech was about, with disdain? Carrying on the campaign of deceit in Highbury to hide his secret engagement with Jane Fairfax, which had also been formed on a few weeks’ acquaintance in a public watering place – Weymouth – and attempting to share a private joke about it? Trifling with the affections of Jane Fairfax by insinuating that he might have tired of their engagement? He is doing all of these and giving voice to an opinion commonly held at the time; that acquaintances, let alone engagements, formed in watering places were carelessly formed, unsuitable, indiscreet and even unprincipled.

Knightley holds this opinion himself and expresses it in his succinct history of their engagement:

“He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment–and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.”

The fact being of course that at watering places such as Bath and Weymouth, unscrupulous men were far more likely to be snared by Isabella Thorpes and Lydia Bennets than be fortunate enough to gain the heart and hand of an incomparably superior Jane Fairfax. Interestingly, its Frank Churchill’s impropriety that is more closely associated with seaside Weymouth than Jane Fairfax’s. Even before he enters the storyline himself, he is depicted by Knightley as at his leisure in ‘the idlest haunts in the kingdom’ and ‘forever at some watering-place or other’ when it was his duty instead to visit his newly wedded father and stepmother in Highbury, though he had claimed to not be at liberty to do so. It is Weymouth furthermore that Emma envisions as the setting for feelings she imagines Jane Fairfax to have for Mr Dixon, a fantasy Frank Churchill encourages her in, pretending to speculate about illicit feelings between his own fiancé and Mr Dixon, a married man; an unfeeling ruse designed to defer any possible suspicions away from himself.

It was unseemly undoubtedly of Jane Fairfax to agree to an engagement, and a clandestine one at that, with a man who’s guardians it’s known as a certainty will object to her poverty despite her excellent character and real attachment to their kinsman. The treatment she receives from Frank Churchill and Emma however, the irksomeness of Mrs Elton’s attentions and the tediousness of Miss Bates’, and the very uncomfortable notion that such a woman as Jane Fairfax should have to waste her life as a governess, more than makes up for losing her head by the seaside, no? On the topic of Mrs Elton, Austen so easily hints at the depth and root of that lady’s vulgarity and lack of propriety by deliciously allowing her so many aspirational referals to her Bristol and Bath connections.

Austen visited the seaside many times, and at many different spots, during her life, and impropriety by the seaside was on it’s way theme-ing itself into an entire novel but Austen’s last illness and her sad early death left her novel of a seaside town, entitled Sanditon (1817) unfinished.

The Sanditon fragment may be read here at the University of Virginia Library website.

Osmington Bay

View of Osmington Bay, Dorset, Looking Towards Portland Island
c. 1816
John Constable
Image c/o ARTstor
Data: University of California

 

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