Austen uses seaside towns several times throughout her novels. In Persuasion, we get the distinct impression that there is wholesome pleasure to be had in these resort towns; however, in other novels, she presents these retreats as morally lax and having the potential to inspire questionable behavior in young people.
I first noticed her use of the “resort town” in Emma. Even though the title character has never seen the ocean, there are several places where the author mentions “watering-places,” the influences of which are not always presented in the most positive light. In the novel, there is a comical debate about whether the benefits of sea air and sea-bathing warranted the John Knightleys remaining at South Bend for that purpose. Mr. Woodhouse reveals his opinion that “the sea is very rarely of use to any body” and that he’s “sure it almost killed” him once. Another poor recommendation appears in the fact that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax met at Weymouth, a seaside resort town, where Jane’s secret engagement is referred to as her “acting contrary to all sense of right,” and where Emma suggests that “her [Jane’s] affection must have overpowered her judgement” (hasn’t that happened to all of us?) (Hannon 68-69).
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet declares, “A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.” Mrs. Bennet’s declaration has far less to do with the potential benefits of the seaside than with Lydia’s quest to travel to Brighton in order to follow the regiment encamped there. Elizabeth desperately tries to get her father to see the dangers that a trip to Brighton would pose for Lydia, and we all know how that turned out. Lydia elopes with Mr. Wickham (well, sort of elopes… mostly lives in sin for a while) and brings shame to herself and her family. Another of these resort towns, Ramsgate, serves as the background for the attempted elopement of Georgiana Darcy with the same Mr. Wickham.
It seems that for Austen, towns like Brighton, Weymouth, and Ramsgate were her version of Panama City Beach on Spring Break where there is the potential for all kinds of trouble, especially for foolish, impetuous young people.
As I make my way through Persuasion, there is s distinct departure from her tone of dire warning for the resort town, particularly in her fondness for the resort town of Lyme Regis, which is the setting for part of Volume I. This is a seaside resort town, and apparently well-loved by Jane Austen herself. In Persuasion, she describes Lyme at length, praising and celebrating its beauty and attraction saying, “these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.” As Anne and the group make their way to the sea shore, Austen describes them as “lingering only, as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserves to look on it at all.” This strikes me as a departure from the dire warnings that seems to appear in her earlier novels. Maybe she developed a love for the seaside during the Austens’ tenure in Bath, a time when she traveled to places like Sidmouth, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Weymouth, and of course Lyme Regis (Hannon 68-69).
I’m not done with Persuasion yet, so I cannot say for certain that moral disaster isn’t lurking around the corner in Lyme, but so far, the worst thing that has happened there is that foolish Louisa, in her attempt to appear charming, cracked her skull – no real moral damage, and as we all know, moral damage is the only kind from which is it nearly impossible to recover. In the win column for the sleepy little resort, we have seen Anne confront and conquer the demons of her past relationship with Captain Wentworth, and we’ve met the much maligned Mr. Elliot who gives every impression of being a perfect gentleman (although, Austen has fooled me before…).
Maybe her time at Lyme changed her mind, or maybe her maturity lessened the dangerous temptations offered in these towns. Whatever the reason, in Persuasion, her attachment and fondness for ocean and resort towns is clear, and I am quite interested to see if the little town continues to remain unsullied in the story.