Friday, January 13, 2017

Bath, England through Jane Austen's Eyes

Dressing up in Regency era clothing such as Jane Austen may have worn

I have realized that I am slowly turning into a woman who could easily slip into a Jane Austen novel. Alas, I am not becoming one of those spirited, self-assured main characters in the tradition of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Instead, I am displaying all the old-fashion qualities of a mother worried about social graces and fine manners. At eleven years old, my daughter is on the brink of becoming a "young lady," and against her will, I signed her up for etiquette classes (a.k.a. "charm school").

She has learned the proper way to shake hands, when to rise, setting tables, writing thank you notes, replying to invitations, and the ladylike way to sit. (For those of you who are curious: Ladies sit upright with knees turned to the left corner of the chair or toward partner and then right ankle crossed over the left ankle, making an “S” shape. Right hand rests over the left hand, on the lap just above the knees.) In a few weeks, it will culminate in a Cotillion Ball where all the boys and girls dressed in their finery will have to ballroom dance with a partner, switching after each song — presumably being very gracious about the whole thing and not stepping on each other's feet.  A ball to look forward to! How grand! I wonder which Jane Austen character my girl will turn out to be.

Bath Abbey with The Pump Room in the foreground

When we visited Bath, England last summer, I was a bit surprised to discover that Jane Austen is linked so strongly to the city. Founded in the first century AD by the Romans who were drawn there by its hot springs, Bath became a popular spa resort town after Queen Anne visited a few times in the early 1700s to "take the waters" for is curative qualities. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the Roman era baths as well as the grandiose, Neo-classical buildings and Palladian urban design created during the Georgian period in response to its growing popularity. Jane's time in Bath occurred soon after many of the notable Georgian buildings were constructed, and visiting them was a fashionable pasttime in her day.

In 1799, Jane and her mother stayed with her brother Edward in his house facing Queen's Square.
The obelisk was erected in 1738 in honor of the Prince of Wale's visit to Bath.

Jane's parents were married in Bath, and she would sometimes come and stay with her mother's brothers who lived here. Jane later visited her brother, Edward, in Bath in 1799. Her novel, Northhanger Abbey, is set here and was written around the time of this visit. Its main character is delighted to be visiting a place filled with members of high society.
"I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again — I do like it so very much... Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?"
- Catherine Morland, Northhanger Abbey

4 Sydney Place (white door) just outside the Bath city center

Jane then moved here with her family after her father retired in 1801. She was 26 years old at the time. Although she supposedly enjoyed her earlier visits here, legend has it that Jane fainted at the news of the move and wasn't very happy about it. Her later book, Persuasion, has more of a "bloom is off the rose" attitude towards Bath than the eager outlook of Northhanger Abbey. 

As you walk around town, you'll notice that all the Georgian era buildings are constructed of honey colored Bath stone. This was part of the urban design plan to give the town a cohesive look... and perhaps to fatten the wallet of the mayor who happened to own the local quarry. 

A view of Pulteney Bridge which Jane often crossed on her walks into town

The Austen family's first house was newly built on Sydney Place and located just outside of the city center. Jane could just as easily walk through the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside or stroll across Pulteney Bridge to reach the center of town in five minutes. The bridge was built in 1775 and is famous for being lined on both sides with shops like Florence's Ponte Vecchio. Her former home is now part of Bath Boutique Stays, so Jane Austen fans can actually sleep in the same house as Jane did. 

25 Gay Street

In 1804, the Austens' lease on their Sydney Place home ended, so they moved to Green Park Buildings which is no longer standing. There, Mr. Austen died on January 20, 1805. True to the all the dire warnings of spinsterhood in Jane Austen's novels, neither Jane nor her sister, Cassandra, were married and found themselves without income. Their brothers helped support the sisters and their mother, but the women were forced to move out of Sydney Place to cheaper lodging at 25 Gay Street to be nearer to Mrs. Austen's brother who lived on The Paragon. This home was located in a busy part of Bath, and their household help was reduced from three hired people to one maid of all work. The three of them eventually moved away from Bath permanently in 1806.

The Pump Room

Although Jane only lived in Bath for a few years, she mentions it in all her novels as well as making it the main setting of both Northhanger Abbey and Persuasion. In Northhanger Abbey, the Pump Room is apparently the place to be seen. If you're hoping to accidentally-on-purpose, bump into someone, just go to The Pump Room. 

Taking the waters at the Pump Room

Today, the Pump Room is a restaurant serving modern British cuisine. It was completed in 1799 about the time Jane wrote Northhanger Abbey. Based on that book, young ladies during Jane's time would stroll around the room hoping to catch some eligible bachelor's eye. It's called the Pump Room because people could come here to drink the waters pumped up from the hot springs. It is supposedly chock full of 43 minerals. You can still "take the waters" on your visit here. (Warning: Try really hard not to spit it out no matter how sulfur-like it tastes. Spitting is not polite.)

The Assembly Rooms

Another location which features prominently in Jane's Bath novels is the Assembly Rooms, also known as the Upper Rooms. This was the location of many evening balls for fashionable Georgian society. In other words, an excellent place to find a husband. Alas, the ball room was closed for a private function, so I could not go inside to take a look. Good thing that I already have a husband!

Part of The Circus
The Circus, a set of three buildings that curve around a roundabout, is named after the Latin word for "circle." Do not expect any lions, tigers, bears or acrobats here. Each building is made up of multiple townhouses and was designed by John Wood the Elder, one of Bath's eminent architects during its Georgian heyday.

Emblems above the first floor facade of The Circus

He was fascinated by prehistoric stone circles and inspired by the Colosseum in Rome.  Each floor has a different type of Greek column — Doric,  Ionic, and Corinthian. Emblems above the first floor facade show serpents, acorns (representing Druids), and both nautical and masonic symbols. Jane undoubtedly passed by these buildings many times as she walked through Bath.

The Royal Crescent

Near the Circus, you'll find one of the most famous set of houses in Bath, the Royal Crescent. Designed by John Wood the Younger (son of, you guessed it, John Wood the Elder), it is made up of 30 terrace homes that share one, long curving facade. High on a hill, the Crescent looked out over farm and pastures when it was built from  1767-1775 and is considered one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture. This was the best address to have during Jane's time, and people would often promenade in front of it to take in the fresh air and be seen by high society. (Do people still promenade?) In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane mentions taking walks in front of the Crescent, and she later has her characters in Northhanger Abbey do the same. Scenes from the TV version of Persuasion were filmed here, too. The home on the far right of the Crescent is now a museum with decorations and furnishings from the late 1700s.

The Jane Austen Centre is a must see for any fan of the author

For fans of Jane Austen, no trip to Bath is complete without a visit to the Jane Austen Centre. Although she did not ever live in this particular Georgian townhouse, it is down the street from her Gay Street residence and right by Queens Square. The museum introduces you to Jane's family and how her time in Bath influenced her novels. It is filled with artifacts from that time period.

Clothing that was fashionable during Jane's time in Bath

The museum's Regency Tea Room serves afternoon tea and is open to the general public, not just guests of the museum. My favorite part of the museum,  though,  is the dress up area at the end where I got to don Regency era clothing and pretend to be Elizabeth Bennett while putting a high top hat on my husband's head and calling him Mr. Darcy.

Although the ancient Roman baths is what first drew us to the town of Bath, it was serendipitous that our explorations meshed so well with my interest in Jane Austen. Frankly, the Jane Austen Centre was the only place that I specifically sought out apart from a general tour of sites. All the others were just part of what makes Bath so interesting.

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  1. I missed the Jane Austin centre when I was in Bath. The city is very interesting. I took a volunteer led tour of the city when I was there.

  2. I so love all the Jane Austen movies - and I've managed to work my way through 2 of her books so Bath looks like a dream visit for me. Now that I think about it I really need to get reading another of her books now.

  3. I had no idea that Jane Austen had any connection to Bath. Interesting! I had to read Pride and Prejudice in high school. When I went on a day trip, the guide didn't say anything about it, mind you we just stopped at the Roman bath.

  4. I love Jane Austen. I think it would be so fun to see all of the places associated with her life. I'm definitely putting Bath on my wish list. #weekendwanderlust

  5. I really need to read some of Jane Austen's books before I go back to Bath. When I visited years ago, all we really saw was the Roman Baths. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  6. I didn't know that Jane Austen is linked so strongly to Bath. I thought this city is famous only for the Roman Baths and if I'll ever visit it it's going to be for that. I am not a great fan of Jane Austen's books.

  7. This is all very interesting. I can see why Austen included so many places of the city in her novels. There is a lot of charm in the city. I like the idea of studying etiquette and good customs. In my opinion, we all should learn about this topic. #wkendtravelinspiration

  8. I didn't realize the Jane Austen connection. Although she didn't live there for long it certainly made an impression upon her. I love the Mayor who owned the Quarry story. Although that smacks of corruption it did lead to a cohesive look in the architecture lol.

  9. The requirement for them to build with Bath Stone reminds me of my neighborhood homeowners association which only permits certain colors of exterior housepaint.

  10. Although, I do keep telling my daughter that correct etiquette is dependent on the country and culture. She defaults to the Malaysian style of eating with her fingers while "sitting" in an Asian squat.

  11. Luckily, many of the sites are remarkable for their own merits, separate from any association with Austen.

  12. It was a more interesting visit than I had originally anticipated.

  13. The Roman baths are what the town is best known for, I suppose.

  14. I'm currently reading a modern retelling by Alexander McCall-Smith of her novel Emma. Have you watched the The Lizzie Bennet Diaries vlog on YouTube? I really liked it.

  15. We went on the volunteer-led tour of Bath, too. That's how I visited most of these places.

  16. I wish I had known all this before we went to Bath back in 2015. I only became a Jane Austen fan within the last year. I hated her books in high school, but I recently had tor read them again and I loved them! Maybe I'll go back to Bath one day and see the town through her eyes! #TheWeeklyPostcard #wkendtravelinspiration

  17. This brought back memories of my day in Bath a little over a year ago. It is a beautiful and interesting city. I love how you wove the Jane Austen connection through the article. I did not go into the Jane Austen Centre when I was there, but I did get inside the Assembly Rooms ballroom. I could picture a dance from Austen's time!

  18. What an interesting and informative post. Love the etiquette lessons and it is good to know that Ladies sit upright with knees turned to the left corner of the chair! Thanks for sharing #TheWeeklyPostcard

  19. you will need to start to run literary tours, and they would be very successful.

  20. Being able to picture her novels when I visited these places really made them come alive. I could imagine how people enjoyed these Georgian buildings when they were newly built.

  21. I really wish I could have seen the interior of the Assembly Rooms. Lucky you.

  22. I've come to realize that I hardly ever sit in a ladylike way.

  23. There's actually a Jane Austen walking tour of Bath, but we didn't do it since the rest of the family was not interested.

  24. It is so nice to read some details about Jane Austen and her connection to this town.The buildings and views are really fascinating...

  25. Enjoyed your post of your Jane Austen trail in Bath. Beautiful photos!


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