Monday, September 5, 2011

LYME REGIS - PART ONE - WHY I WANTED TO VISIT

Click on the pictures for the larger view.

Ever since I first read Jane Austen's novels starting at the age of 16, I've wanted to visit Lyme Regis on the southwest coast of England. In Austen's novel, Persuasion, during a visit to Lyme Regis and a walk along the Cobb, Louisa Musgrove, a character in the novel, slips and falls and suffers a serious injury on the treacherous (at least to me, and with reason considering what happened to Louisa!) stone steps on the side of the Cobb. The fall drastically alters the plotline in a manner as to give the readers the conclusion to the novel which is thought by many to be the only proper ending. 'It was (you may say) satisfactory.'* Poor Louisa, notwithstanding.

In my many visits to England, I never made it to Lyme Regis until this past July, when my friend Cathy and I made our trip by car to the West Country. Needless to say, my visit there was one of the high points of my trip to England. I was nearly beside myself with joy and disbelief that I was finally there.

The picture to the left is a scan of an illustration of Louisa's fall from a limited edition copy of Persuasion, signed by the illustrator, Tony Buonpastore. I bought the book for the introduction by Louis Auchincloss, many of whose novels of upper-class New York I'd read. At first, I didn't care for the illustrations, but they've grown on me.

From Persuasion:
There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, "I am determined I will:" he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of the moment to all who stood around!
Well, not to appear heartless, Louisa was not quite lifeless. She only appeared to be. As Lady Catherine de Bourgh said in another of Austen's novels, 'Obstinate, headstrong girl!'

After seeing the movie 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' and reading John Fowles novel of the same title from which the story in the movie was taken, I was even more desirous of a visit to Lyme Regis to see and walk the Cobb. The film and the book caught hold of my imagination and stayed with me through many years. In 1982, when Grandpère and I made our first and very romantic two-week trip (We'd never been away from our three children for that long!) to England, we both wanted to go to Lyme Regis, him also because he was intrigued by the movie, but we never made it there.

A few months before I went to England this year, I went to a book fair at my grandson's school and saw the novel Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Listed amongst her other published books was The Girl With the Pearl Earring, which I thought I had read and liked, so I bought the book. But I discovered that I had not read the other book but had rather seen the movie based on the novel of the imagined life of the girl in the gorgeous Vermeer painting of the same name. Are you still with me?

Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Anning, born in 1799, a fossil hunter from a poor family in Lyme Regis. Mary began to search for fossils at an early age, with her father and older brother, Joseph, both uneducated, as her teachers. Otherwise, Mary was entirely self-taught, and she had 'the eye' for finding fossils. Mary discovered the first plesiosaur fossil skeleton and made other major finds, such as the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus to be known in London scientific circles, which she and her brother found when she was only 10 or 12 years old. Although many of her discoveries are in museums, she is often not credited for her finds.

The small ammonite fossils, called curies (curiosities), which she and her brother collected, cleaned, polished, and then sold to visitors to Lyme Regis helped the family survive after the death of their father.

Mary was not the only person to have 'the eye'. As we walked on the beach at Lyme Regis, Cathy looked down and found the fossil pictured below right at our feet, and she so very kindly gave the stone to me as a memento of our visit. How generous of her! Thank you, Cathy. I treasure my curie. We never saw another fossil on the beach for the rest of our time there, and I've read that we were very fortunate to find any fossil at all during tourist season.


Like the long-winded lady that I am, I've run on to make this post quite lengthy, but I've told you only about books, movies, and fossil-hunting and precious little about Lyme Regis, so I've decided to tell the story in two parts (three if you count my silly post). Besides, I have more pictures of the beach and the town that I want to post, so the account of our visit to Lyme Regis is to be continued....

The University of California at Berkeley provides a brief biography of Mary Anning.

*'The Journey of the Magi' - T. S. Eliot

Image of Mary Anning from Wikipedia.

Image of Fowles' book from Wikipedia.