This week, in order to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the First Publication of Sense and Sensibility, I’m taking a slightly different tack and am writing not about an edition of the book, or about literary criticism or illustrations( my main emphasis thus far) but about Dorset, a county that features in the book.

(Do remember you can enlarge all the illustrations in this post by clicking on them)

Jane Austen clearly had mixed feelings about the county. She appears to have despised the fashionable sea-side town of Weymouth, made famous by the visits of the Royal Family, in particular George III who visited the seaside resort to recover his health:

(This marvellously gaudy photograph of George III in Weymouth is reproduced here by kind permission of my Twitter friend Patrick Baty, the renowned Historical Paint Consultant)

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 Jane Austen’s Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 14th September 1804)

But she liked Lyme Regis immensely:

They were come too late in the year for any amusement or variety which Lyme as a public place, might offer. The rooms were shut up, the lodgers almost all gone, scarcely any family but of the residents left; and as there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which in the season is animated with bathing-machines and company; 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. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood.

Pesruasion, Chapter 11

She certainly approved if its country estates, for it is in Dorset  we find that Colonel Brandon lives, in Sense and Sensibility. His delightfully old-fashioned home, Delaford, is situated in that country. Mrs Jennings tells Elinor Dashwood and, of course, us of its quiet , old-fashioned charms:

Delaford is a nice place, I can tell you; exactly what I call a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country: and such a mulberry tree in one corner! Lord! how Charlotte and I did stuff the only time we were there! Then, there is a dovecote, some delightful stewponds, and a very pretty canal; and everything, in short, that one could wish for: and, moreover, it is close to the church, and only a quarter of a mile from the turnpike-road, so ’tis never dull, for if you only go and sit up in an old yew arbour behind the house, you may see all the carriages that pass along. Oh! ’tis a nice place! A butcher hard by in the village, and the parsonage-house within a stone’s throw. To my fancy, a thousand times prettier than Barton Park, where they are forced to send three miles for their meat, and have not a neighbour nearer than your mother…

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 30.

The Delaford living is eventually given to Edward Ferrars and this is, of course, where he settles with his new wife, Elinor. A few months later, the marriage of Marianne Dashwood to the deserving Colonel Brandon reunites the sisters to live within a very small distance of each other:

Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 50.

Dorset therefore becomes the home county of four of the leading characters in the book. What did their new home  county look like? What did their neighbours look like? Was Dorset then a sleepy backwater or a hive of intellectual and industrial achievements Well, these questions are more can be answered by visiting an exhibition that is currently on show at the Dorset Country Museum in Dorchester, Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County, curated by Gwen Yarker.

The exhibition attempts, and succeeds, in delineating a portrait of the county as it was in the 18th century. The idea for the exhibit resulted from the purchase of George Romney’s portraits of the Rackett family in 2008.

As Gwen Yarker comments in the preface to the exhibition catalogue:

I became aware , whilst researching the life of the Reverend Thomas Rackett and his extensive circle of friends and acquaintances, of just how formative the century (the 18th century-jfw) was in shaping the county and its institutions not least the Dorset County Museum itself.

The backbone of the exhibition is the Reverend John Hutchin’s History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset first published in 1774. The book contained detialed descriptions of 18th century Dorset. Hutchins surveyed and recorded  the country parish by parish. He wrote about the history,  the people and the topography of the county.

The exhibtion shows that

… Dorset was not an isolated rural county, but was aware of the latest thinking, ideas and intellectual developments coming out of London. This included rural centres such as Blandford Forum, where a circle of natural philosophers were based. They in turn returned to the capital with their local discourses in natural philosophy, antiquarianism and archaeology.

The portraits are grouped along social lines, downwards from the King and powerful landowners, through to the county’s prosperous merchants, the merchant princes of Poole with its lucrative trade to and from Newfoundland, the members of the Dorset Volunteer Rangers , a corps of light cavalry who were founded in 1794 to defend the county against French invasion, the scientists and antiquarians of the county, right down to rare portraits of servants and gamekeepers.

Only sitters who lived in or regularly  visited Dorset are included in the exhibition. Many of the portraits have  rarely been seen before in public, and the curator was successful in persuading a number of private collectors to agree to their portraits being shown to the public for the first time.

The Digby family group of portraits are one example of this. All save one had their portraits painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They amply illustrate  the fate the 18th century assigned to them due to their birth order and potion in society, and the pattern of their lives represent exactly the society about which Jane Austen wrote.

The eldest, Edward 6th Lord Digby,  inherited the tile and estates, and employed Capability Brown to landscape the garden of the family seat in Dorset, Sherbourne Castle. Charitable  and kind he caught a fever whilst visiting the family’s estates in Ireland and died prematurely at the age of 27.

The second son,Henry, became an M.P.He succeeded to the ownership of the estates on the death of his eldest brother.The third son, Robert, entered the navy to eventually become  a Rear Admiral of the Red in 1780.

William the fourth son held the family living of Coleshill in Warwickshire. ,Stephen the fifth son was commissioned into the Army. Charles, the six son also went into the church and was given another family living in Somerset.

The exhibition is fascinating, and I thoroughly recommend it . For lovers of the 18th century it provides wonderful and detailed  insights into the people who lived in Dorset at this time, their homes and their occupations,

Interestingly, the research for the exhibition was begun on a budget of £1000 only,and unpaid volunteers did a lot of the ground work.What an innovative way to involve the local community and to beat budget cuts. Bravo to all concerned.

If, however, you can’t get to Dorchester to see it, then the catalogue of the exhibition, produced in paper back form is a very readable and interesting book in its own right. It is available to order by post from the Dorset Country Museum in Dorchester.