Jane Austen made good use of Lyme town, the Cobb, and surrounding countryside in the central episodes of her novel Persuasion, written in 1815-16.
She was born in 1775; in 1800 her father, rector of Steventon in Hampshire, moved his family to Bath, from which they escaped about once a year for holidays on the coast. A letter written by Jane in 1808 mentions a fire seen somewhere else and compares it to one she had seen at frighteningly close quarters in Lyme; it must have been the fire that destroyed the Mill Lane area on 5 November 1803; this, then, is the evidence of a visit by the Austens at that time. They returned in the summer of 1804Mr. and Mrs. Austen, daughters Cassandra and Jane, and son Henry with his wife Eliza. Their landlord was a Mr. Pyne; so the house in lower Broad Street, belonging then to W. Pyne, Esq., is presumed to be the one they at first stayed in. Cassandra made an outdoor watercolour sketch of Jane seen from behind, her bonnet untied. In about the first week of September, Henry, Eliza, and Cassandra went off via Weymouth to visit friends in Hampshire; Jane and her parents moved to cheaper lodgings, which she called dirty. One letter from Jane is extant, written on a Friday and telling Cassandra that she and her parents had attended both the Wednesday and the Thursday evenings at the Assembly Rooms. On both evenings her mother played cards, the game of Commerce; "My Father staid very contentedly until half past ninewe went a little after eight& then walked home with James [a servant]. My Mother and I staid about an hour later . . . Nobody asked me the two first dancesthe next two I danced with Mr. Crawford& had I chosen to stay longer might have danced with Mr. Granville, Mrs. Granville's sonwhom my dear friend Miss Armstrong offered to introduce to meor with a new, odd looking Man who had been eyeing me for some time, & at last without any introduction asked me if I meant to dance again. I think he must be Irish by his ease, & because I imagine him to belong to the Honble Banwalls, who are the son & son's wife of an Irish Viscountbold, queerlooking people, just fit to be Quality at Lyme." On the morning of the ball, which was "pleasant but not full for Thursday", she walked with Miss Armstrong for an hour on the Cobb, and next morning bathed. "The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. I shall be more careful another time, & shall not bathe tomorrow, as I had before intended."
The winter visit and the summer one both feed this passage of Persuasion:
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 leftand, 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. . . . 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 [Pinhay], 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, 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.
Such descriptiveness, unusual for Jane in that it has no function in the development of her characters and story, testifies to her pleasure in Lyme.