Laurel at Austenprose is  conducting a Group Read of Jane Austen’s last, unfinished composition, Sanditon, this week,and I have been honoured to have been asked to provide a few background pieces to compliment the Group Read. This first post is set out below….on the subject of Jane Austen and Seaside Resorts

(Dover circa 1820-please note you can enlarge all these illustrations merely  by clicking on them in order to see the detail)

Jane Austen’s unfinished fragment, Sanditon, is set in a small Sussex seaside resort, a place that is being ruthlessly and relentlessly “improved” by Mr Parker, a man obsessed with his creation and the money-making opportunities it affords:

Mr. Parker`s character and history were soon unfolded. All that he understood of himself, he readily told, for he was very openhearted; and where he might be himself in the dark, his conversation was still giving information to such of the Heywoods as could observe. By such he was perceived to be an enthusiast — on the subject of Sanditon, a complete enthusiast. Sanditon, the success of Sanditon as a small, fashionable bathing place, was the object for which he seemed to live. A very few years ago, it had been a quiet village of no pretensions; but some natural advantages in its position and some accidental circumstances having suggested to himself and the other principal landholder the probability of its becoming a profitable speculation, they had engaged in it, and planned and built, and praised and puffed, and raised it to something of young renown; and Mr. Parker could now think of very little besides…

Sanditon, Chapter 2

(Sussex from John Cary’s Traveller’s Companion or a Delineation of the Turnpike Roads of England and Wales etc.,(1812)..)

Sanditon is also under the patronage of Lady Denham, the wealthy widow of Mr Hollis and a baronet, a social climber though marriage and a woman rather in the mould of  Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Pride and Prejudice,. Here she is described by Mr Parker:

“There is at times,” said he, “a little self-importance — but it is not offensive — and there are moments, there are points, when her love of money is carried greatly too far. But she is a good-natured woman, a very good-natured woman — a very obliging, friendly neighbour; a cheerful, independent, valuable character — and her faults may be entirely imputed to her want of education. She has good natural sense, but quite uncultivated. She has a fine active mind as well as a fine healthy frame for a woman of seventy, and enters into the improvement of Sanditon with a spirit truly admirable. Though now and then, a littleness will appear. She cannot look forward quite as I would have her and takes alarm at a trifling present expense without considering what returns it will make her in a year or two. That is, we think differently. We now and then see things differently, Miss Heywood. Those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution. When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself.” Lady Denham was indeed a great lady beyond the common wants of society, for she had many thousands a year to bequeath, and three distinct sets of people to be courted by: her own relations, who might very reasonably wish for her original thirty thousand pounds among them; the legal heirs of Mr. Hollis, who must hope to be more indebted to her sense of justice than he had allowed them to be to his…

Sanditon, Chapter 3

In this satire on developing seaside resorts, commercial greed, hypochondria and the type of people these place attracted, it is perhaps no mere coincidence that Jane Austen ensures that Mr Holllis, the first husband of Lady Denham, shares the name of the man who began the development of Lyme Regis from small fishing village to a seaside resort.

Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) was an interesting character. He was a political propagandist and a radical but also a supporter of the house of Hanover. He was a benefactor, amongst other institutions, of Harvard University and owned an estate of 3000 acres at Corscombe near Beauminster. He kept, however, a suite of rooms in the Three Cups Hotel at Lyme and bought up much of the slums and derelict property in Lyme in order to demolish them and improve the town. He created the first public promenade by purchasing land on the shore to create what Jane Austen would have referred to as The Walk ( it is now part of Marine Parade).He knocked down a series of warehouses to clear a site for the building of Lyme’s Assembly Rooms complex and these were completed in 1775 just after Hollis’s death. These are the Rooms that Jane Austen visited in 1804.

(Lyme Regis from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places etc (1803)by John Feltham)

The growth of these seaside resorts and the surrounding industry of health tourism from the mid 18th century onwards coincided with the growth but ultimate decline in the inland spas. The pursuit of heath and taking the “cure” -taking the waters-(both mineral and sea) and sea bathing – was perceived as a health benefit and something to be encouraged.

The cessation of hostilities with France in 1815 also added impetus to the habit of visiting towns on the coast : the threat of invasion had been very real, as Jane Austen knew only too well from the experience of her brother Frank Austen at Ramsgate and his service there with the Sea-Fencibles. Kent was especially vulnerable to the threat of invasion due to its closeness to France.

This is a view of the Kent coast facing France at Hythe circa 1820: you can clearly see the rows of Martello towers, defensive towers equipped with cannon and they had been built to defend the Kent coast from invasion: they lined the coast. This daunting prospect had now subsided and the coast could be considered a place of recreation not a means of defence. Resorts proliferated and grew apace as a result

Sea Bathing was promulgated as a serious benefit to a good heath regime from the late 17th century. Though he was by no means the first to do so, Dr Richard Russell, a native of  Lewes in Sussex who practiced medicine in nearby Brighton, was foremost in promoting this development.

From the 1740s, and perhaps even before, Dr Russell was prescribing bathing and even the drinking of sea-water for many ailments, and the popularity of sea-bathing rapidly increased.

Here is a picture of the frontispiece of  the first Irish edition of his influential work, the Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the diseases of the Glands particularly the scurvy, Jaundice, Kings-evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption:

The fashion for sea bathing rapidly caught on. Bathing machines –used to preserve the decency of bathers- were first used at Margate and Scarborough (which also had the benefits of  being able to offer spa water to its visitors)

(Rowlandson’s view of the spa -spelt “spaw”- at Scarborough, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough,1813)

In Sanditon the pompous would-be seducer Sir Edward Denham extols the virtues of sea bathing, quite indelicately, to Charlotte Haywood, the heroine:

To plunge into the refreshing wave and be wrapped round with the liquid element is indeed a most delightful sensation”, he assured them. “But health and pleasure may be equally consulted in these salutary ablutions; and to many a wan countenance can the blush of the rose be restored by an occasional dip in the purifying surge of the ocean. Not, he hastened to add, trying to bow to them both at the same time, “that either of my fair listeners would need the rose restored to their lovely cheeks.”

Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza de Feuillide used sea bathing at Margate in Kent during the winter of 1790 as a desperate attempt to improve the health of her sickly child, Hastings. Sea bathing in the winter was especially recommended for the good of one’s health:

You will find by the date of this I am still the inhabitant of M (Margate-jfw) for  altho’ much pressed to spend by Christmas in Surrey, the inconvenience of removing so numerous a family and the great Benefit Hastings has received and still reaps form Sea bathing made me think it better for us to all to remain where we were and putting off jaunting for another year… I had fixed on going to London the end of this Month, but to shew You how much I am attached to my maternal duties, on being told by one of the faculty whose Skill I have much opinion of that one month’s bathing at this time of the Year was more efficacious than six at any other & that consequently my little Boy would receive the utmost benefit from my prolonging my stay here beyond the time proposed, like a most exemplary parent I resolved on foregoing the fascinating delights of the great City for one month longer … Was not this heroic?

(See Letter from Eliza de Feuillide to Phylly Water dated 7th January 1791)

(Margate from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places etc 1803)

The fashion for sea-bathing eventually overtook in popularity the fashion for taking the waters at inland spas. In his poem Retirement, written in 1791, William Cowper,  Jane Austen’s favorite poet, commented somewhat sourly on the craze for sea-bathing and the hypochondria it encouraged:

But now alike, gay widow, virgin, wife

Ingenious to diversify dull life

In coaches, chaises, caravans and hoys

Fly to the coast for daily, nightly joys

And impatient of dry land agree

With one consent to rush into the sea

Jane Austen seems to have agreed with him on this as in most things: Mrs Bennet –the malade inaginaire of Meryton- and her pathetic squeal for attention in the guise of taking the  sea cure in Pride and Prejudice that

“A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever.”

echos this.

Though she was careful in Sanditon, in the case of the longed for heiress, Miss Lambe -( as she was in the case of Mrs Smith in Bath  in Persuasion )- not to ridicule those who were truly ill and were bravely putting a good face on their situation be they rich or poor,  Jane Austen obviously had little time for those who were unnecessarily obsessed with their own health, and in Sanditon she presents to us the healthily–built, freakishly heath-obsessed Arthur Palmer as the object of her scorn:

In Miss Lambe, she decided, Arthur had encountered someone quite unique in his experience — a genuine invalid, who despised her own weakness, disliked talking about her symptoms, and overtaxed her strength in her eagerness to lead a normal life whenever she was capable of it. And Arthur, who did not usually spare much thought for anybody’s comfort but his own, had lately been forced into recognising the difference between selfish indulgence and necessary prudence. He wanted Miss Lambe’s sketches of seaweed and she was very willing to execute them; but he had begun to realise that health, which he had always regarded as an excuse for behaving exactly as he liked, could also intervene in one’s pleasures and prevent one from carrying out a favourite scheme, His sisters had always encouraged Arthur to discuss his minor ailments at such length that it astonished him when Miss Lambe denied having a headache, pretended to feel better than she really did and made so few complaints as to seem almost ashamed of her condition.

In Sanditon, Arthur Parke is portrayed mercilessly as a supreme hypochondriac, and a voluble one at that: Jane Austen obviously did not approve. Her poor heroine Charlotte Haywood clearly didn’t either, viewing his “health related” antics with much astonishment:

Arthur was heavy in eye as well as figure but by no means indisposed to talk; and while the other four were chiefly engaged together, he evidently felt it no penance to have a fine young woman next to him, requiring in common politeness some attention; as his brother, who felt the decided want of some motive for action, some powerful object of animation for him, observed with considerable pleasure. Such was the influence of youth and bloom that he began even to make a sort of apology for having a fire. “We should not have had one at home,” said he, “but the sea air is always damp. I am not afraid of anything so much as damp.” “I am so fortunate,” said Charlotte, “as never to know whether the air is damp or dry. It has always some property that is wholesome and invigorating to me.” “I like the air too, as well as anybody can,” replied Arthur. “I am very fond of standing at an open window when there is no wind. But, unluckily, a damp air does not like me. It gives me the rheumatism. You are not rheumatic, I suppose?” “Not at all.” “That’s a great blessing. But perhaps you are nervous?” “No, I believe not. I have no idea that I am.’ “I am very nervous. To say the truth, nerves are the worst part of my complaints in my opinion. My sisters think me bilious, but I doubt it.” “You are quite in the right to doubt it as long as you possibly can, I am sure.” “If I were bilious,” he continued, “you know, wine would disagree with me, but it always does me good. The more wine I drink — in moderation — the better I am. I am always best of an evening. If you had seen me today before dinner, you would have thought me a very poor creature. Charlotte could believe it. She kept her countenance, however, and said, “As far as l can understand what nervous complaints are, I have a great idea of the efficacy of air and exercise for them — daily, regular exercise — and I should recommend rather more of it to you than I suspect you are in the habit of taking.” “Oh, I am very fond of exercise myself,” he replied, “and I mean to walk a great deal while I am here, if the weather is temperate. I shall be out every morning before breakfast and take several turns upon the Terrace, and you will often see me at Trafalgar House.” “But you do not call a walk to Trafalgar House much exercise?” Not as to mere distance, but the hill is so steep! Walking up that hill, in the middle of the day, would throw me into such a perspiration! You would see me all in a bath by the time I got there! l am very subject to perspiration, and there cannot be a surer sign of nervousness.” They were now advancing so deep in physics that Charlotte viewed the entrance of the servant with the tea things as a very fortunate interruption. It produced a great and immediate change. The young man’s attentions were instantly lost. He took his own cocoa from the tray, which seemed provided with almost as many teapots as there were persons in company — Miss Parker drinking one sort of herb tea and Miss Diana another — and turning completely to the fire, sat coddling and cooking it to his own satisfaction and toasting some slices of bread, brought up ready-prepared in the toast rack; and till it was all done, she heard nothing of his voice but the murmuring of a few broken sentences of self-approbation and success…

Referring back to Cowper’s tone in his poem, we can see that it also reflects something of Jane Austen’s ambivalent attitude to these places of “health” and fashion themselves. At the time she was writing Sanditon, she was in the midst of her own critical health problem, and only a few months from death. She had tried taking the waters at Cheltenham, sadly to no avail.  In my view, her clear sighted view of quackery and the cures offered by resorts such as Sandition is obviously influenced by her own experience.

Though she found a certain amount of happiness at Lyme (despite realizing it was not one the first rate places and the people it attracted reflected this) and the small resorts of the West Country, she certainly seems to have violently disliked seaside places which were large and fashionable. She seems especially to have regarded the resorts that were associated with certain members of the Royal Family as places to be avoided at all costs for the moral good of her characters. Worthing, thought to be Jane Austen’s inspiration and model for Sanditon, was patronized by Princess Amelia , fifteenth child of George III and the Prince of Wales’s sister. Brighton-the then centre of the fashionable British world- she appears to have detested as much she did its royal patron, The Prince of Wales.

(The Prince of Wales’s Marine Pavilion from The Beauties of England and Wales; or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical and Descriptive of Each County Embellished With Engravings : Sussex (1813) by Edward Wedlake Brayley and John Britton.)

Brighton is, of course, the scene of Lydia Bennet’s downfall in Pride and Prejudice, and her Lady Lesley in Lesley Castle goes there specifically because it is one of her

favourite haunts of Dissipation

Weymouth too she disliked :

Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive without recommendation of any kind and worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester…

(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 14th September 1804)

(Weymouth from The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places (1803) by John Feltham)

And of course it was at Weymouth that Jane Fairfax met Frank Churchill in Emma; while there, under its unsteadying influence no doubt, this moral, sensible and intelligent woman consented to a secret engagement that was very nearly her undoing.

Even small time and comparatively retired places like Ramsgate in Kent

(Ramsgate from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places etc (1816) by John Feltham)

could be deceptively dangerous places in Jane Austen’s world. For it was at Ramsgate that Wickham nearly succeeded in eloping with the young and trusting Georgiana Darcy.

I suspect that it was the character of the people that these places attracted that truly irked Jane Austen, rather than the places themselves. And that disdain was not only reserved for hypochondriacs and the scoundrels on the make, but was also felt by her for those would exploit The Company– ill or only perceived to be ill-  for purely mercantile reasons. The development of these coastal towns was also seen by many entrepreneurs as a sound commercial opportunity not to be missed: a situation exploited by the keen eye of Jane Austen in Sanditon.

In Sandition Mr Parker knows that in addition to the usual amusements of sea-bathing, circulating libraries filled with tempting goods for  rich patrons to buy etc., he has to attract rich patrons  so that others will flock to his resort, drawn by the  glamour of possibly being able to associate with such people. Lady Denham is also acutely aware that the success of their resort depends largely upon the quality of The Company there:

And if we could but get a young heiress to Sanditon! But heiresses are monstrous scarce! I do not think we have had an heiress here — or even so since Sanditon has been a public place. Families come after families but, as far as I can learn, it is not one in a hundred of them that have any real property, landed or funded. An income perhaps, but no property. Clergymen maybe, or lawyers from town, or half-pay officers, or widows with only a jointure. And what good can such people do anybody? Except just as they take our empty houses and, between ourselves, I think they are great fools for not staying at home. Now if we could get a young heiress to be sent here for her health — and if she was ordered to drink asses’ milk I could supply her — and, as soon as she got well, have her fall in love with Sir Edward!”

The people who patronized these seaside places were indeed, at first, from the very highest echelons of society, but as the 18th century wore on and the 19th century began, and as  Lady Denham disappointedly noted,  members of the middling sort- families of the professional and mercantile classes- were very much to the fore. (Note the working classes and the poor were not part of this scene until the growth of the railway system and the development in the provision of the concept of paid holidays for workers in the mid to late 19th century).

In Sandition we are given a glimpse of exactly the sort of Company a small and yet-to-become-fashionable resort attracted. How sad it is for us that illness prevented Jane Austen from continuing and completing this fascinating fragment: for it might have thrown even more light on her attitudes to seaside resorts and the people who inhabited them for health or other reasons. Like Charlotte Heywood’s thoughts on Sir Edward Denham

The future might explain him further.

Jane Austen’s sadly shortened future did not allow enough time for her to explain Sanditon fully to us.


I do hope this short introduction has given you a little of the background to the fragment which will enable you to continue to enjoy Laurel’s Group Read.

Next at AustenOnly, a post about Samphire, the now trendy  plant that was lauded by Sir Edward Denham.