05 March 2013

The Cobb and Chesil Beach

Lyme Regis is today a small town on the Dorset coast; it was once a major port, gaining the suffix Regis as recognition. It’s a place for tourists today, together with the Jurassic coast, famous for fossils. The harbour is guarded by a mole, The Cobb. Chesil Beach is nearby, a shingle bar extending to the Isle of Portland. Despite this pleasant location, the area has a sinister reputation in literature; awful things happen there, far out of proportion to its size.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrave falls while being rather silly on The Cobb, and is unconscious for quite a while. When she recovers, she has changed from a flirty air-head to a much more sober young woman. Personality changes are common enough after serious head injuries, reflecting damage to the frontal lobes. People may change considerably, though usually they become temperamental, often violently so; a change “for the better” is distinctly unusual. But then, that’s the sort of thing that novelists are allowed to get away with — and it confirms Jane as a well read author.

Sarah Woodruff, the eponymous French Lieutenant’s Woman is first seen on The Cobb, as if looking for her (presumed) lover; she is regarded as a “fallen woman”. There’s fossil hunting too. Of course, John Fowles is playing with us — even to the extent of providing several different endings. This book was the first of the neo-Victorian genre; novels which strip the classical works of their homilies, euphemisms, circumlocutions and hypocrisy.

A more recent book is The Hand that first held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell; it won the Costa Book prize. Again, The Cobb is the background to a tragedy; but you will have to read it, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Chesil Beach features in Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner, a very popular late-Victorian romance for boys. There’s a murder and a drowning, lots of improbable coincidences, and a happy ending. (She waits for him.)

On Chesil Beach by Iain McEwan differs from the others; it’s the fact that nothing happens that is so awful. And I’m not telling you what doesn’t happen.

Just what is it about The Cobb and Chesil Beach that makes them so suitable for tragedies?

[Edit] The ITV series Broadchurch is filmed around the village of West Bay on the Jurassic coast. Just reinforces the impression that this isn't a good part of the world.

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