“Falls communicate something, if we are paying attention,” writes Carol J. Adams in today’s guest post on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Carol’s essay “Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s,” in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Emma, was published in the New York Times in December of 2015. Carol is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and many other books. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter @_CarolJAdams. She’s currently completing a memoir of reading Jane Austen’s novels and providing care to elderly patients. I’m delighted to introduce her guest post on Louisa Musgrove and Lyme Regis.
Beechen Cliff. Box Hill. The steps at the Cobb at Lyme Regis.
The notable aspect of each of these locations in Jane Austen’s fiction is that they are actual places. One isn’t confused about where Beechen Cliff or Box Hill is. (They make their appearances in Northanger Abbey and Emma respectively.) But an ongoing debate about the steps that Louisa Musgrove fell from at the Cobb continues. The Cobb has three distinctly different sets of steps to choose from.
Upon arriving at Lyme Regis, Tennyson supposedly asked to be taken to the Cobb so he could see for himself where Louisa Musgrove fell. I wonder to which of the three stairs on the Cobb he was taken.
Like Tennyson, some readers are drawn to the Cobb, a jetty-like barrier providing protection against the winds and waves of the English Channel. John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) describes it as “a long claw of old gray wall that flexes itself against the sea. … [T]he most beautiful sea rampart on the south coast of England … a superb fragment of folk art. Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate; as full of subtle curves and volumes as a Henry Moore or a Michelangelo, and pure, clean, salt, a paragon of mass” (Chapter 1).
Austen stages one of the most dramatic moments in her fiction on the Cobb:
There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. (Volume 1, Chapter 12)
Louisa, thrilled by jumping and being caught by Wentworth, immediately turns around and runs back up the stairs to be jumped down them again. Though Wentworth says he is not ready, she jumps:
she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of that moment to all who stood around!
There she lies, and who will determine what to do next? Anne, only Anne.
Louisa’s fall raises Anne up.
For the story, it is immaterial from which stairs Louisa precipitately self-precipitated herself. But for some readers, myself included, our love for the novel draws us to the Cobb. The novel prompted me to think about the notable falls in my family. Falls communicate something, if we are paying attention. Falls aren’t only about clumsiness, or bad timing, or vertigo; they may be telling us something about frailty, or emotional collapse, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Falls ask us to make decisions, to identify resources, to recognize that something significant has changed. Austen captures all this, too, in the dramatic scene on the Cobb.
On the Cobb, each visitor can appraise the three candidates for the location of Louisa’s fall. The first set is a double set of stairs at the “Gin Shop.” My friends and I passed this option quickly; too solid, too stolid, too near the land.
The most popular choice is “Granny’s Teeth,” the second set of steps. (This is the answer offered by no less venerable an institution than the Jane Austen Centre.)
Okay, maybe a young woman, burdened by the Regency clothing of her time, might have run back up those steps. I—burdened only by a winter coat—certainly did not. (And what does the name of those stairs says about the dental health of elderly women?)
As many have pointed out, Austen describes the stairs as being part of “the new Cobb.” The new Cobb was rebuilt at the end of the eighteenth century after a storm destroyed it. A plaque commemorates its completion.
When Jane Austen visited Lyme Regis in 1803 and 1804, she would have seen the new stairs and the plaque.
Perhaps the party from Uppercross on their first visit to the Cobb went up the first steps, and came down the second (Granny’s teeth). And maybe on the second day they went down the third, the new steps.
We could say it does not matter which stairs were the scene of Louisa’s fall. The steps that really matter are those in our mind, where the event—as with all of Austen’s fiction—really takes place. After the fall, Anne speaks up, reclaims her voice, and begins to control the narrative of her life.
But anyone who stood on that “noble hill,” Beechen Cliff, or experienced the vista from Box Hill, understands the frisson of connection to Austen and her characters. And there at the foot of the steps on the Cobb, we find ourselves head over heels in the novel itself.
We might run up the stairs toward the upper part of the Cobb thinking about Louisa (or a family member). Walking on the upper part of the Cobb, I remembered the dramatic falls of my life. Jane Austen gave me the chance to see them from these heights—and reimagine each of them, first from the Gin Shop, then from Granny’s teeth, and finally from the “new” steps with the turmoil of the sea so close.
But on the lower part of the Cobb, it was Anne, only Anne, who held sway.
Quotations are from the Cambridge University Press edition of Persuasion, edited and with an introduction by Janet Todd and Antje Blank (2006).
All photographs of Lyme Regis are by Carol J. Adams.
Twenty-first in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Mary Lu Redden, Maggie Arnold, and Hazel Jones.