Impropriety by the Seaside I
July 19, 2007 § Leave a comment
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.
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.
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.
To be continued