Room 5: Inspiration‘the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.’ - Persuasion
The sea is featured in many of Jane Austen’s novels. Generally, it is glimpsed fleetingly as a place of change, escape, adventure and sexuality. In Pride & Prejudice Wickham attempts to seduce Georgiana at Ramsgate and elopes with Lydia from Brighton. In Mansfield Park Fanny is at most risk of losing her heart to Mr Crawford on their walks overlooking the sea defences at Portsmouth, whilst in Persuasion Louisa Musgrove literally throws herself into Captain Wentworth’s arms (or tries to). In Persuasion, too, Mr Elliot’s admiration for Anne causes Captain Wentworth to see her with fresh eyes and Louisa and Captain Benwick fall in love over poetry. Even in Emma, a completely landlocked novel, the sea is much talked of until Emma herself begs the company “not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable;—I who have never seen it!”
But it is in Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last, unfinished work, that the sea takes centre-stage. Jane Austen began the novel in January 1817, but was forced to stop writing in March, having completed a draft of the first 11½ chapters. In that tantalising fragment, a vivid scene is depicted.
Sanditon, a seaside resort on the Sussex coast, is a fresh and modern setting. Mr Parker, an ambitious property speculator, has abandoned his ‘snug-looking’ house in the old village in favour of ‘modern Sanditon’, a new development perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea.
In this setting, the strict rules of society are somewhat relaxed. Strangers meet and quickly become intimate. The conversation is all about property speculation, health, hypochondria, and medical men. But there is, too, joy in the sea, and in the landscape that surrounds it:
‘Charlotte, having received possession of her apartment, found amusement enough in standing at her ample, venetian window, and looking out over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished Buildings, waving Linen, and tops of Houses, to the Sea, dancing and sparkling in sunshine and Freshness.’