Granny's Teeth

Jane Austen's

Persuasion

in the Southwest

of England

Bath Abbey

One of Austen’s most popular novels, Persuasion, is set in the Southwest of England.  Away from the bustle of London, Austen’s middle and upper class characters discover in the Southwest more intimate social settings.  Small up-and-coming provincial cities like Bath were becoming fashionable for the wealthy (or those simply wanting to see and be seen), while many still enjoyed small dinner parties or dances at their country estates.  Rolling hills and the sprawling countryside provided the opportunity for leisurely strolls and talks.  The beautiful West County landscape is also conducive to the romantic relationships that develop in most of Austen’s novels.  G.E. Mitton says that Austen’s stories are “of country life, and simple everyday scenes.  Jane Austen was the first to draw exactly what she saw around her in a humdrum country life, and to discard all incident, all adventure, all grotesque types, for perfect simplicity” (61).  One of the greatest achievements of Austen’s writing is that it gives a clear and unaffected view of middle and upper-class life in small towns.  The characters Austen creates are not idealized and have neither “the fantastic vices of the upper, nor the abandoned coarseness of the lower classes”, says Mitton (67).  While their lives are sometimes monotonous, they are respectable.  Like Perusuasion, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility are also set in the Southwest—in Bath and near Exeter respectively—suggesting that Austen found much inspiration in the landscape.

Sailboats in Lyme RegisJane Austen was born December 16, 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire.  The seventh of eight children, Jane was educated first by a relative and then at a boarding school in Reading.  She professed her family to be proud readers of novels and was very close with her sister Cassandra.  Jane spent a good deal of time in Bath, seeing plays and socializing.  After her father retired, Jane’s family moved there in 1801, taking frequent trips to seaside towns like Sidmouth, Lyme Regis, and Dawlish.  When the family left Bath in 1806, Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, it was with “what happy feelings of Escape!”  Jane’s distaste for Bath suggests that her depiction of Anne in Persuasion is semi-autobiographical.  Yet Austen’s vivid descriptions of both Bath and Lyme Regis are no doubt the result of time spent in these places.  From Bath, the family moved first to Clifton and next to Southampton, finally settling in Chawton, Hampshire; often the moves were the result of financial difficulties.  Although her novels were written two hundred years ago, their continued popularity is illustrated by a number of widely released films and television miniseries that have been developed from Austen’s novels. A highly successful film version of Sense and Sensibility (1995) was shot at Saltram House near Plymouth and in the nearby countryside directed by Ang Lee was released in 1995, starring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson; sections of the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth were filmed at Montecute House, Somerset.

Persuasion is set in the West Country in several emblematic locations: Lyme Regis (Dorset), Bath, and two family homes in rural Somerset.  Kellynch Hall and Uppercross are both tucked away in the countryside, yet they are quite different.  Uppercross is a manor house in a small rural village, while Kellynch is the estate of the aristocratic Elliots.  The current baronet, Sir Walter, clings to his title despite squandering his wealth.  In contrast, the principle family of Uppercross—the Musgroves— has come into modest wealth and respectability through farming, although they hold no titles as Sir Walter does.

In Persuasion we meet Anne Elliot, a woman whose family has inherited its titles and wealth, rather than earned them.  Her father and sister care only for maintaining their place in society; they believe themselves to be important people who should be highly sought-after as acquaintances.  Anne regularly receives visits at Kellynch from her late mother’s friend Lady Russell, whose opinion Anne has always trusted.  Yet eight years prior to the novel’s action, Lady Russell persuaded Anne not to marry Frederick Wentworth on the grounds that Wentworth was a poor sailor with “nothing but his name to recommend him” (19).  Anne knows that her friend had Anne’s best interests in mind; yet since her rejection of Wentworth, Anne has not found happiness.  Now, fate brings Wentworth back into Anne’s life.  Because Sir Elliot has been spending money beyond his means, he begrudgingly lets out Kellynch Hall and the family takes up temporary residence in Bath, where they can be “important at comparatively little expense” (10).  Kellynch’s new residents, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, are relatives of Captain Wentworth, who has in recent years made quite a name for himself (along with considerable wealth) in the Navy.  With Captain Wentworth once again in Anne’s social circle, she must reexamine her feelings to determine whether she still loves him. 

Before moving to Bath, Anne visits her sister Mary at rural Uppercross, where she and her husband Charles Musgrove reside in a Angels climbing the wall of Bath Abbeycottage on the grounds of the Musgroves’ manor house.  At Uppercross, Mary’s sisters-in-law vie for Wentworth’s affections.  Later, with her family and friends Anne visits Lyme Regis, where she meets Wentworth’s friends from the Navy.  Later still, she travels to Bath to join her father and sister, where she is pursued by her mysterious cousin Mr. Elliot and rekindles her friendship with her old mentor from school, Mrs. Smith.  Each of these locales—Kellynch, Uppercross, Lyme Regis, and Bath—present Anne with a distinct set of social, economic, and psychological limitations and opportunities, as she and Wentworth decide whether they can forget the hurts of the past and rekindle their love for one another.  As the narrator says, “A removal from one set of people to another…will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea” (28).

Austen’s hometown, Steventon, no doubt influenced her creations of Kellynch and Uppercross.  G.E. Mitton says that Steventon has a “quiet prettiness, without the excessive richness to be found in other south-country villages,” and “is perhaps more thoroughly characteristic of England that any other” (10).  “The curves of the road and the oak, beech, and fir trees were “prominent objects in the scenery amid which [Austen] lived” (Mitton 9).  The passage which describes Anne’s walk with the Musgrove girls notes the “narrow paths across the fields” and the “tawny leaves and withered hedges” (56).  Thus, the countryside offers opportunities for walks and peaceful leisure time.  Lady Russell, who lives nearby, is considered by the Elliots to be a suitable companion for Anne at least partly because of her title.  Because acquaintances were so limited for a young woman like Anne, it would no doubt be easy to place one’s self above others on the grounds of holding a specific title; Elizabeth certainly sticks her nose up at those of lower classes.  Hence, it is remarkable that Anne can escape from such a restrictive world without a selfish and self-important attitude. 

Continued…

 

© Copyright Emily Kliever 2007