Despite Jane Austen being extremely miserable during her time residing in Bath, she will be forever associated with the city thanks to the Jane Austen Centre and the annual Jane Austen Festival – a celebration of the novels and Georgian society Jane so evocatively captured through her vivid characters and descriptions.
Jane is known to have visited relations living in Bath in 1797 and 1799 but was distressed when her father the Reverend George Austen, on retiring from the ministry aged nearly 70, decided to leave their beloved home in Steventon in Hampshire and relocate there. Her parents had married in Bath and they had many relatives in the surrounding area. At the time of the 1801 census Bath was one of the largest cities in Britain, with a population of 40,020. Jane wrote ‘‘It has the finest shops outside of London.’’ Aged 25, Jane had been born and raised in the rectory at Steventon with her five brothers and one sister. Educated mainly at home, Jane began writing as a teenager and although perhaps the experience of living in Bath improved her talent for astutely observing the superficiality of the rich and the fashionable, the wrench from Steventon was such that her productivity as a writer considerably diminished during her years living in Bath.
Jane’s father had been a staunch supporter of her desire to become a writer, purchasing writing materials and a desk and attempting to secure for her a publishing contract. Jane began writing The Watsons during her time in Bath, a novel she never completed. Although Bath, with its spectacular Palladian architecture, was a centre for high society at the time and offered Jane many opportunities of meeting eligible suitors she remained unmarried for the rest of her life after turning down a marriage proposal in 1802. She had initially considered it in order to help alleviate the family’s financial difficulties but instead bravely faced the stigma of spinsterhood and the family’s need to downsize to increasingly smaller properties – Number 4 Sydney Place conveniently located close to Sydney Gardens, an attractive outdoor area at that time with regular music and firework galas, 27 Green Park Buildings, and finally Gay Street where Mrs Austen, Jane, and her sister Cassandra moved after Mr Austen’s death in 1805. Her father was buried at St Swithin’s Church, the church in which he and Mrs Austen had married. When Jane finally left Bath she wrote in a letter to her sister “It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of escape.”
Bath quickly became a literary landmark due to Jane mentioning the city in all her novels and for choosing Bath as the main setting for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – Jane’s last completed novel. Both novels were published posthumously – Northanger Abbey channelling her own early hopes of falling in love and marrying, Persuasion an account of disappointed love drawing from her own experience. In Northanger Abbey she writes: ”They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”
Most of the streets and buildings mentioned in Jane’s books remain unchanged and provide an ideal reference when exploring Bath. The Royal Crescent; a magnificent terrace of 30 three storey houses in Bath stone built by John Wood the younger between 1767 and 1774, referred to by Jane as simply ‘The Crescent’ and now includes the luxury Royal Crescent Hotel and No 1 Royal Crescent museum, once inhabited by the Duke of York and now maintained by the Bath Preservation Trust. The property was restored to its former glory with an interior replicating a well appointed 18th century abode and offers a glimpse into the living accommodation of the Georgian aristocracy.
The ‘Grand Pump Room’, officially opened by the Duchess of York in December 1795, soon became a favourite meeting place where ladies and gentlemen would go ‘to be seen’, drink the hot spa water, and listen to music. The elegant Pump Room was empty of furnishings in order to enable visitors to mingle freely. In Northanger Abbey Jane writes; ‘‘With more than usual eagerness did Catherine hasten to the Pump-room the next day, secure within herself of seeing Mr Tilney there before the morning were over, and ready to meet him with a smile; – but no smile was demanded – Mr Tilney did not appear. Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody wanted to see; and he only was absent. ‘’What a delightful place Bath is,’’ said Mrs Allen as they sat down near the great clock, after parading the room till they were tired; ‘‘and how pleasant it would be if we had any acquaintance here.’’ Today the Pump Room is a restaurant open for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea with the added enjoyment of musicians The Pump Room Trio. It is also possible to sample the hot spring waters free of charge in the Pump Room – the only example of its kind in the UK.
The Jane Austen Centre, located in a Georgian townhouse in Gay Street, just a few doors down from where Jane once resided, provides a fascinating snapshot into her life in Bath through her letters and manuscripts, to costume and film clips. The Jane Austen Centre conduct Austen inspired walking tours which take place every Saturday and Sunday and Bank Holiday (Adult £6.00). The Jane Austen Centre also organise the increasingly popular Jane Austen Festival, now in its twelfth year.
Taking place at various venues around Bath from 14-22 September 2012, the festival will include concerts, theatricals and readings from Austen’s favourite works, the famous Grand Regency Costumed Promenade taking place on the 15th September, where over 500 ladies and gentlemen, sporting military uniforms, breeches and bonnets, will parade through the streets of Bath, commencing at Queen Square and led by the Worcester Yeomanry Cavalry and the town crier. This event will be followed by a Promenaders’ Luncheon in The Guildhall and many entertainments throughout the day.
On Sunday 16th, actor Adrian Lukis – well remembered for playing roguish Mr Wickham in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – will be presenting an Austen duologue at the Tea Room in the Assembly Rooms where Georgian visitors would have taken tea and played cards and Jane Austen is known to have attended balls. She writes in Northanger Abbey; ‘’Mrs Allen was so long in dressing, that they did not enter the ball-room till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.’’
Dance tutorials will be taking place on Friday 21st September in preparation for the Regency Costumed Masked Ball being held in the Pump Room that evening. Tickets (£82) include a drinks reception beside the spectacular floodlit Roman Baths and a hot supper.
Jane Austen Centre
Address: 40 Gay Street, Queen Square, Bath, BA1 2NT
Opening hours: Open all year
2nd April to 30th October 2011
Open every day 9.45am to 5.30pm
Late opening July and August – Thursday to Saturday until 7pm
1 November 2010 to 1st April 2011
Sunday to Friday11am to 4.30pm Saturday 9.45am to 5.30pm
Closed Dec 24 – 26 and 1 January.
CHILD: 6-15 £4.25 (under 6 free with an adult)
FAMILY: £19.50 (2 adults with up to 4 children)
Telephone: 01225 443000
This article will be published in Best of British Magazine