Jane Austen: a novel weekend in Lyme Regis

A Jane Austen fan in possession of free time must be in want of costume drama. Rhoda Koenig joins the writer's adoring public for a novel weekend in Lyme Regis
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The Independent Culture

The weekend begins with a talk in Lyme Regis's Guildhall by Diana Shervington, a retired potter, who is rather sensationally billed as "Jane Austen's direct descendant". This does not indicate a secret in the author's life, merely overexcited publicity. Shervington, who's lived in Lyme for 25 years, is in fact the great-great-granddaughter of one of Austen's five brothers, but is genteelly vague about her precise place in the continuum.

Asked her age, she says: "Well... last year I retired from the committee of the Jane Austen Society." Her voice is piping and often exclamatory; Billie Piper, in the TV adaptation of Mansfield Park, was "quite the wrong sort of young woman!" The season in Lyme Regis in Austen's day was "September! October! And November! Would you believe it?"

Shervington speaks of the unflinching realism of Austen's observations ("If you have wealth, it doesn't mean you're virtuous! Not at all!"), the radical nature of her authorship ("Until then, novels had been just on one subject! They were not respectable!") and the courtesies afforded her by persons of distinction ("The Prince Regent invited her to Carlton House – which wasn't open to the public at all!").

She says that Austen's few but pointed comments on the Peninsular War have been praised by historians. She then spreads out her treasures – the rose-coloured cockade of egret's feathers that Austen wore to celebrate Nelson's victory at the Nile, a thimble in an ivory case, and a collar in white cotton lawn, embroidered by her very own fingers.

In the afternoon, there is Tea With Jane Austen at the theatre, where the Janeites nibble scones while a woman plays a harpsichord and three actors impersonate Austen, her brother Charles and her sister Cassandra. The siblings test her with such questions as: "What was the book you wrote in which Marianne wanted to find out about her young man?" They then act out a juvenile work, the story of "The Beautiful Cassandra".

The audience pays keen attention and photographs the three from every angle. Philip, recently retired from the Welsh Assembly and dragged here by his wife, is merely tolerating the whole thing ("I try to model myself on Mr Bennet and shut myself up in my library whenever possible"), but the rest lap it up.

James, a middle-aged man who calls himself "a gentleman in possession of no fortune and in want of a wife". The reasons for his bachelorhood quickly become clear. He has not only brought his poems with him ("I'm influenced by Yeats, but I've struck out in my own way"), but has them to hand. I make encouraging noises while reading "The sun confuses itself in cloud," and James explains that he's "loosened up the sonnet a bit".

After tea, James and I go with two female Austen buffs to the Cobb, the swerving, tilting promenade between harbour wall and open sea where Louisa Musgrove had her momentous fall in Persuasion. This end of town has Lyme's only public acknowledgment of the author, a Jane Austen Garden. The only other (unofficial) recognitions of the writer are near by – the Jane chippie and the Persuasion frock shop.

James continues to praise the perfection of Austen and her heroines, though adding that some are more perfect than others ("Emma is too tall for me") and lamenting the failure of the modern girl to understand him. I ask him if he has ever considered that understanding someone is not the most important thing in a relationship, and add: "I know some married couples in which the husband or wife doesn't understand their spouse, but they're very happy because they're good to each other." James receives this with a pained expression. "Yes," he says, "I suppose there are marriages like that – but they're not for me."

As the evening's Jane Austen: An Elegant Portrayal demonstrates, praising yourself in the title is tempting fate. The trio of actors are back, this time enacting excerpts from Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. One feels a definite chill when the former are presented out of order, and a Janeite who later tells me: "I read all the books all the time" confirms her displeasure. Otherwise, the full house laughs gaily at sallies they must have read and heard many times before. (The younger visitors are more familiar with the films than the books, and even then only the most recent ones.)

Whether their appreciation goes very deep, however, is another question. The man to whom I mention my dislike of Mr Bennet for his selfishness and irresponsibility is startled and says: "I think you're being a bit postmodernist there." The young woman wrapped in a plaid pelmet hung with golden balls, who clutches a rag doll of a children's TV character ("He goes everywhere with us," said her resigned boyfriend), responds to the question: "What would you say you have learnt from Jane Austen?" with a panic-stricken look.

On Sunday, more important things even than Jane Austen are remembered. At 11am, a maroon is fired at the war memorial and another, two minutes later, ends the silence. How many lives, one thinks, are commemorated in each of those 120 seconds? The old boys in their medals from Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Malaya are a cheery lot, though, and one smiles when I ask about his wartime memories. "Went in at 21," he says, "got out at 26. Best years of my life."

That afternoon Carl Salter, a strapping local guide, takes the Janeites on a tour of Lyme in the costume and persona of Captain Wentworth ("Ah!" he cries, hearing my accent, "you're from the Colonies!"). In braid-trimmed coat, knee breeches, sword and buckled shoes, he leads his crew through the hilly streets, pointing out historical features and commanding traffic to halt.

At one point there is music behind his words, as the memorial parade approaches with its marching band – an obbligato like that of the wars being fought at the time of the Austen heroines' teatime flirtations. They file along the next street, visible through a gap in the houses. And as we glimpse them, we are reminded that some aspects of the world of Jane Austen are still with us and, sadly, always will be.