Sidmouth is now talked of as our summer abode” – Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, January 1801
In the summer of 1801, Jane Austen and her sister and parents visited Sidmouth, a seaside Devon town made unexpectedly popular by a visit from King George III in 1791. The Austens came at the invitation of Richard Buller, a newly-wed vicar and former pupil of Jane’s father, Rev. George Austen.
Jane was happy to escape Bath which, even then, she found confining after the freedom of Steventon; and, furthermore, she liked Mr Buller and was satisfied, she wrote, that ‘he would not oppress me by his felicity and his love for his wife…he simply calls her Anna without any Angelic embellishments.’- Sidmouth, Dawlish, and Weymouth
For a few short weeks there Jane experienced the happiness of new love, although scant proof exists. Cassandra, according to many accounts, made brief remarks about that visit to her nephews and nieces years after Jane’s death. Her memories, according to David Cecil, author of A Portrait of Jane Austen, are not in complete agreement.
All we can be reasonably sure of is that at Sidmouth Jane met a young gentleman who showed signs of being extremely attracted by her. We do not know his name nor his profession, though there is a suggestion that he was a clergyman. We do know that he was handsome, intelligent and possessed of unusual charm; so much so that Cassandra, who hardly ever praised anybody, praised him warmly and even thought him good enough for her sister Jane. – Cecil, p. 97
Jane was apparently as smitten with the young man as he was with her. After only two or three weeks acquaintance, in which Cassandra was convinced that their attraction towards each other had blossomed into love, the young man had to leave to meet an obligation.
It was understood that he would soon come back and join the family again. Cassandra had no doubt that he would then state his intentions and that Jane would receive them favourably. – Cecil, p. 97
Sadly, this hope did not come to fruition. Before the budding lovers could meet again, the young man’s brother wrote to say that he had died suddenly. We know no more about the story. Jane’s letters are missing for many months afterwards – either she was so grief stricken that she was unable to write or her letters were destroyed by Cassandra. We will never know.
We can only surmise that Harris Big-Wither, Jane’s next suitor who did propose (and was accepted one evening and rejected the following morning) did not live up to Jane’s standards for a husband, not in the way that her mysterious lover had. While rich and able to support Jane and her family, Harris lacked looks, intelligence and charm. (“Mr Wither was very plain in person – awkward, and even uncouth in manner – nothing but his size to recommend him” – The Suitor: Harris Big-Wither, JASA.)
Jane’s doomed love affair occurred in a small seaside town in Devon that had increased in popularity after the King’s visit. Until 1800, Sidmouth was a fishing village situated on the Channel, between Lyme and Exmouth, one hundred and sixty-two miles from London. By 1801, Sidmouth offered an elegant ball room, tea-room, and some shops. By the mid-19th century there were seven or eight bathing machines, which were private property. Several rows of good houses were built by the gentry, a numbers of whom made it their summer residence. The market-days were Tuesday and Saturday, with no coaches or waggons going regularly to or from this small resort. In an 1814 panorama, one can see the Georgian verandas and awnings and the fashionable dandies and well-dressed ladies parading up and down the esplanade.
For the Frontispiece the Author is indebted to the friendly and elegant pencil of Hubert Cornish, Esq.; and he feels happy in thus acknowledging his obligations, for a drawing of one of the most interesting bathing-places in the kingdom.
The view is taken at low water, and from Salcombe-hill, which rises on the east side of the town; A part only of Sidmouth is included; but the Beach, and the distinguishing features of its coast, are sketched with fidelity and spirit.
The cliffs of Torbay are seen in the western distance—High Peak succeeds; and Peak-hill, with its signal-post, near which runs the road to Exmouth, exhibits the western side of Sidmouth valley. Peak-house, the residence of Mr. Baruhr, and the elegant cottage of Miss Floyd, are seen above the town. – An Excursion from Sidmouth to Chester, 1803, Google ebook
The town consists of about three hundred houses and, in the census taken by order of Parliament in the year 1803, was said to contain twelve hundred and fifty-two inhabitants. This number, according to the census in 1813, was increased to above 1600. Beginning from what is termed Mill-cross, at the north end of the town, and ending at the beach, its length is about the third part of a mile. For rather more than half of this space it is, principally, one street; the remainder is divided into two branches like the letter Y. In the eastern branch, which seems rather the best of the two, are shops of almost every description, and two of the inns of the town, the London Inn and the New Inn. In the western branch of the main street is the Post-office. Both branches of the Y, as well as the main stem, contain lodging-houses, very various both in size and price. – The Beauties of Sidmouth, 1816
Today, much of the Regency architecture remains and one can readily imagine Jane and her beau walking along the coast, inhaling the bracing sea air and feeling the ocean breezes. Years later Jane mentioned Sidmouth briefly, for William Elliot had visited the town before visiting Lyme and meeting Anne in Persuasion.
Years after her death:
Sidmouth became an epicentre of the craze for cottages ornées – gentlemen’s residences designed in faux rustic style. Look at the thatched roofs on the seafront. When the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to Sidmouth in 1832, the house she rented had previously been occupied by the Grand Duchess Helena of Russia. Sidmouth had found its form. – Sidmouth mans the barricades
Another version of Jane’s romance with a stranger has recently surfaced. In Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, author Andrew Norman asserts that the young clergyman was called Samuel Bicknall. According to the Daily Mail, a British rag, “Not only were her dreams of marrying Sam thwarted, but the match was sabotaged by her own beloved sister, Cassandra, who also lusted after him.”
Oh, dear (and how contrary to our knowledge of Jane’s and Cassandra’s deep love and respect for each other!) I ordered this seemingly spiteful book for my Kindle. More on Mr. Norman’s assertions later!
Read more on the topic:
- Historic Sidmouth
- The Bathing Machines at Sidmouth
- Salcombe Hill near Sidmouth
- Sidmouth: A History
- Old Sidmouth
- Marine Place and the Shore in Sidmouth
- The Beauties of Sidmouth Displayed, 1816, Google ebook
- How Jane Austen Was Robbed of Her Real Mr. Darcy By Her Sister
- Jane Austen’s Holiday Romance
- Sidmouth, Dawlish, and Weymouth, JASA
- The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture, p 533