Saturday, 3 November 2018

In the footsteps of Austen (maybe) - by Fran Hill

I'm currently on holiday in Lyme Regis, following in the footsteps of Jane Austen.

Or, as it may turn out, not following.

Remembering that Austen's novel Persuasion was partly set in Lyme Regis - Austen loved it here - I thought it would be fun to go in search of the steps from which Louisa Musgrove pitches herself at the end of Volume 1. It's not so much a cliff-hanger as a step-faller. She leaps recklessly from the steps into the arms of a gentleman who, unfortunately for her, isn't quite ready.

C'mon. We've all done it!

'Can we go and look for some steps today?' I said to my husband on Monday afternoon as we sat in our holiday flat.

He said he was more thinking, can we eat fish and chips in a beach cafe and watch the sea.

'Someone fell off these steps,' I said. 'It was quite dramatic. She was knocked senseless.'

'Who? Someone we know?'

I had to admit that, not only was it someone we didn't know, but it was someone who had never existed. I told him about Jane Austen's Persuasion and the misfortune of Louisa.

'I want you to take a picture of me on the steps,' I said. 'Then we can have fish and chips afterwards. To celebrate the culmination of my literary pilgrimage.'

We wandered along the Cobb, Lyme's impressive man-made stone harbour wall. It's like a monolithic arm reaching out to the sea. We kept an eye out for steps.

Here's a photograph of the Cobb, if you've never seen it before. It also features in John Fowles' 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' as Fowles lived here much of his life. At the beginning of the famous film adaptation, Meryl Streep stands on the end of the Cobb wearing a cape three sizes too big for her - never wise in a high wind.

'Perhaps, when we find the steps, I should fall off them,' I said to my husband, 'and you can take the picture while I'm sprawled on the ground, unconscious, as Louisa was. That would be more authentic. Like one of those Historical Re-enactment Societies, only without the knights and horses.'

We agreed that, authentic or not, it would also be a sad end to a holiday in Dorset, especially as it was only Day 2.

As we walked along, we spotted some precarious steps sticking out of the harbour wall. 'These must indeed be the very steps of which Miss Jane Austen wrote so admirably,' I said, coming over all early 19th-century in my enthusiasm. 'They look treacherous.'

Here's what we were looking at. We later found out that the steps have been dubbed 'Granny's Teeth'. They're not steps, really. More, boulders that stick out from the wall, like giant molars.

I gazed up at them, biting my lip. 'Where's the handrail?' I said.

We decided that Persuasion would have been a very different book, and somewhat shorter, had Louisa Musgrove had a handrail and not merely a gentleman admirer who couldn't catch.

'Are you going to climb up to the top?' my husband said. He looked anxious. He was presumably wondering why now, at the age of 56, I had suddenly decided to climb up anything.

'I might,' I said.

Here's the picture he took of me, breathless and exhilarated after my risky journey all the way to the bottom step.

'How does it feel?' my husband said.

'I am faint with triumph,' I said. 'I have stood on the Musgrove steps.'

'Good,' he said. 'Now that's over, let's walk a little further along the Cobb and then go for fish and chips.'

But, as we walked on, we passed some more steps. Here they are. Let's call them Steps #2, just as Austen would no doubt have done, having been fully conversant with hashtags.

'How do you know it wasn't these steps Austen meant,' my husband said, 'instead of the ones we just saw?'

'I ... er ...'

And when we turned back to walk towards the promenade, we passed some more steps that we hadn't noticed earlier. Here they are. Let's call them Steps #3.

'Could it have been these?' he said.

'Er ...'

To say that finding the other two sets of steps burst my Musgrove-re-enactment bubble would be an understatement.

'To the bookshop!' I cried, desperate for confirmation. 'Forget fish and chips! I need a copy of Persuasion.'

Eight pounds, ninety-nine pence later, I found that the story offers few clues as to which steps Austen meant. The description is too vague, surely. Here it is.  '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.'

Surely this could be referring to Steps #1, #2 or #3?

'To Youtube!' I cried, when we got back to our holiday flat that evening. But watching several clips of the Musgrove Fall in different film versions of Persuasion proved equally inconclusive. One director uses the Granny's Teeth steps, another Steps #2 and another Steps #3.

So ...

Dear Jane

I tried very hard to make a literary pilgrimage to the steps from which one of your heroines collapsed. I hope you appreciated my effort, but I fear I may have failed. I'm not going to lie, though - I do think you could have thought ahead, made the description more specific as to which steps you meant, and saved me £.8.99 and a fruitless half hour on Youtube.

However, I have started re-reading Persuasion again and am hugely enjoying it. I will, therefore, forgive you. This time.

Yours most sincerely

Fran Hill (President of the newly-formed Possibly-not-Authentic Literary Re-enactments Society)

Fran Hill is a writer and teacher from Warwickshire. Her first book 'Being Miss' is available on Kindle and in paperback from her website here. Her second - 'Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?' - will be published by SPCK in 2020. She blogs at


  1. So glad you didn't do a complete Louisa

    1. Me too! Although if it had meant an enforced stay of weeks in Lyme Regis, as it did for her, I would have considered it.

  2. I reckon it was Steps 1, being the most precarious. It could have been Steps 2, but Steps 3 look far too modern. Either way, I love Persuasion, having studied it for A level - definitely her best novel, much more grown up than the others (though I love the others too).

    1. I've just finished re-reading it, Veronica, and loved it. She's so caustic :)

  3. Haha! I love the photo of you on the steps. Let's say it was those. Just for form's sake Wonderful, chuckle-making post as ever Mrs H. X

    1. Thanks, Deborah. I think a 'photo of Fran on some steps' could well turn out to be a limited edition, so print it off and put it in the loft.

  4. I love this book and Lyme Regis. You aren't the only puzzled person concerning the steps, Fran. We couldn't figure it out on our last visit either. I hope to go back again one day. Lyme - seaside and countryside combined - heavenly.

    1. I'm definitely going back to Lyme Regis. I could have done with at least 4 weeks there just to explore it properly. Thanks for your comment :)

  5. Loved it, and echo all the other comments! Pure Fran Hill stuff, (you and Jane might've got on famously ... )

    1. I'm hoping she'll be in heaven and we'll be asked to run Heaven's Library together. This is my dream.