Jane Austen’s Bath
Jane Austen is perhaps the best known and best loved of Bath's many famous residents and visitors. She paid two long visits here towards the end of the eighteenth century, and from 1801 to 1806 Bath was her home. Her intimate knowledge of the city is reflected in two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which are largely set in Bath. The two novels show well how her views of the city changed as she grew older. As a young girl she enjoyed her visits there, especially the fashionable shops and the dancing in the Assembly Rooms. Of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, she writes:
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.
And Catherine herself proclaims:
”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?”
But the heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is no fan of the city. She:
disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her – and Bath was to be her home.
Like Anne, the older Jane Austen was forced to come to live here by her father’s wishes (as an unmarried daughter of her time she was completely dependent upon her parents’ wishes and needs). She was a country girl at heart, and her perception and sharp wits made her impatient of the foibles that distinguished the polite society of her day. Bath’s worldly values and its total emphasis on pleasure seeking would have been anathema to her, and the implication that her parents would have brought her here as a last ditch attempt to get their apparently unmarriageable daughter “married off” would have added to her discomfort.
Despite all this, Bath is today inextricably defined by its links to Jane Austen, and a visit here isn’t complete without a thorough exploration of of the city of her day. Among the streets she lived in on her several visits are Queen Square (where my hotel was located), Gay Street, Sydney Place and Trim Street. She would have shopped in Milsom Street and borrowed books from the Circulating Library there, taken the waters at the Pump Room, danced at the Assembly Rooms and enjoyed music and fireworks in Sydney Gardens.
The city is still very much as Jane Austen knew it, with its streets, public buildings and townscapes retaining much of the elegant well-ordered world that she portrays in her novels. You can explore these on your own, perhaps taking the novels or a good biography of Jane as your guide, or you can download a free audio tour from the official tourism website. I haven’t listened to this but it sounds a great idea and I’ll definitely try it if I visit again with more time to explore. The Jane Austen Centre (see my Things to do tip) also offers guided walking tours which visit the places where she lived and the settings for her Bath novels.
By the way, another author who has strongly influenced my love of Bath is the less well-known and in my view rather under-rated historical novelist Georgette Heyer. Although her books may not be considered of the literary quality of Jane Austen’s, they are nevertheless very enjoyable and witty. She was always very careful and thorough with her research, so you can be confident that the many titles set in Regency Bath portray an accurate picture of life there at that time.