Jane Austen and Brighton

‘At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here.’

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 41

Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published two hundred years ago today. Although Brighton is not directly described in the novel, there are numerous references to the town and it provides the setting for an important plot development.

Brighton is the place where the flirtatious Lydia Bennett flees with her roguish lover, George Wickham. The choice of town was no accident. Brighton’s reputation as a place to indulge in immoral behaviour was well established by 1813, and popularly exemplified by its great patron, the Prince Regent. But this dubious reputation was already in place by the time Prince George first visited the town in 1783, and had developed in parallel with its renown as a health resort from the 1750s onward.

Austen’s references to Brighton in Pride and Prejudice are peppered with scorn.

‘In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp — its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.’

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 41


Austen may well have been playing with common perceptions, but she also seems to have held a long personal distaste for the town. In a letter sent to her sister in 1799, Austen remarked:

I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you do, but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it.

Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 8 January 1799. (Quoted at www.pemberley.com; Editor’s note: Please see comment below which disputes the accuracy of this quotation)

Was Brighton really this bad? By way of contrast, here is a more modest view of the town from 1813, the year of Pride and Prejudice‘s publication.

Marine Parade, Brighton, 1813. Sepia ink drawing by James Bennett.
Marine Parade, Brighton, 1813. Sepia ink drawing by James Bennett.

This drawing provides a much calmer view of Brighton, and one that contrasts with the lurid impression held by Lydia Bennett, or Jane Austen herself. Produced a decade before Brighton’s first pier was constructed, and almost thirty years before the massive expansion sparked by the railway connection with London, it shows a quiet seaside town. Only the bathing machines on the beach and, perhaps, the tall houses on the seafront give a sense that it could be overrun by visitors.

The drawing was made by James Bennett, who shares a name, coincidentally, with the central family in Pride and Prejudice.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer

4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Dwiar

    So Jane preferred Bath to Brighton – perhaps she preferred a Mr Darcy to a soldier! Interesting to see the picture of the town before the Chain Pier was built.

  2. Yoram Cohen

    I am sorry to say, that the supposed quotation from Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra Austen of 8 January 1799 is completely wrong and misleading. The same misquotation appears also in http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppjalmap.html

    On Page 34 of Deidre Le Faye’s 4th edition of Jane Austen Letters (Oxford 2011), the same sentence reads:

    “I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Bookham (!) as much as you do, but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it;”

    The same webpage at http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppjalmap.html
    brings another quotation from a Jane Austen letter, in which she is supposedly referring to being at Brighton:

    “Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.”
    — Jane Austen, letter of August 1796.

    However, this remark has nothing to do with Brighton. As Le Fey explains (on Pages 5 and 370), the letter of August 23rd, 1796 was actually written from Cork Street, London, where Jane Austen and others were staying at Benjamin Langlois’ house (and see about that also at “The One-Sided Romance of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy” by Joan Klingel Ray, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol28no1/ray.htm), as well as http://becomingjane.blogspot.co.il/2007/07/cork-street-london.html).

    So, as much as Jane Austen had formed some definite views of Brighton, this passage cannot be used as a proof of her actually ever visited it in person.

    • kevinbacon

      Thanks for your comment, Yoram. I’ve included a note in the text above referring readers to your correction.


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