Great admiration for Jane Austen took me to Bath in the first place. After London, it was the first city I visited in England and my favourite until I went to Cambridge. The city keeps much of its original Roman architecture that half shows like a partly unveiled coliseum surrounded by modern buildings, all enclosed in a Georgian aura, as if the city was the last vestige of a preindustrial England, before the coal mines, the vapour ships, before the cinder-covered North and the foggy South that appeared in Dickens novels. Bath was founded there by the romans because of the thermal waters, and these gave origin to its actual name. Later on, during the Elizabethan epoch, Bath became once again a holiday centre and by the times in which Jane Austen lived, the last part of the 18th century and the beginnings of the 19th, people from all across the country fled to Bath because of the supposedly beneficial properties of the thermal baths.
The city was also a famous social centre and, even when it wasn’t London, it had numerous ballrooms and tea rooms, all kinds of shops and a warmer weather than the capital. For me, Bath is mercilessly humid, hot during the summer, windy and rainy the rest of the year, but undoubtedly charming. Despite what one might think and in spite of the many events in Bath related to Jane Austen (see the bottom), the portrait of the Southern city portrayed by the author in her novels seems to point out that she didn’t fancy it very much.
Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city is the main setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, although it is also mentioned constantly throughout all her work. Being from Hertfordshire, the Austen family moved to Bath for health issues, giving the young writer the chance to depict the chic sceneries and the eclectic way of life of the city in her work.
In the Austenian imaginary, Bath was a beacon to well-off young ladies that wanted to socialize (and to young men in possession of fortunes of course, who were in want of a wife), some kind of small-scale London in which life went by between thermal baths, tea rooms, dinners and balls. It is in Bath were Anne, form Persuasion, and Catherine, from Northanger Abbey, meet their future husbands, but it is also living in Bath that leads the young heroines to make poor choices: Anne, persuaded to try and find a better match, rejects Captain Wentworth’s affection even when she loves him, and Catherine gets carried away by her new socialité friend, Isabella, which almost costs her her happiness.
Bath is portrayed in both novels, with the subtlest irony, as the embodiment of the superficiality that surrounded the well-off families of regency England, the superficiality that Austen criticizes in all her novels. The ballrooms with their music, canapes and drinks; huge chandeliers and candle-lit, hazy atmospheres; crowded streets filled with people rushing to buy ribbons and dresses; the frequent arrival of single soldiers— all of this seemed to plunge Austen’s heroines into a moral stupor from which they recovered just in time. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine arrives in Bath to stay with some better-off friends of her family and immediately becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, a young lady who shows her the ways of the city and who also happens to incarnate all social vices.
Northanger Abbey is a critique of many things —including mansplaining— and a fervent defense of the novel as a worthy literary genre, and as such it couldn’t have a better setting than Bath. The superficiality and mannerism considered fashionable by urban societies are a complete mystery to Catherine, who is more of a tomboy and a country girl, and her inicial enchantment transforms into disappointment. Catherine is also a somewhat quixotic figure, suffering from latent bovarism, who is obsessed with gothic novels— deemed as low literature and read mainly by women— and who begins believing she lives in a novel by Anne Radcliffe.
Austen’s intertextual game is clever, being her work a parody of the popular gothic novel in which, as in all of her novels, it is easier to detect irony by the psychology of the character than by looking for the author’s own voice. There are no negative words about Bath (that is, in the novels, but we could find some in Austen’s personal correspondence), but all the praise for the city is spoken by the most naive and superficial characters. What made Bath such an unattractive place for a woman who dedicated her work to the criticism of imperialism and the political position of women? Perhaps Bath was the equivalent of the actual touristic complexes that pollute natural reserves and whose luxuries are really paid off via exploitation. And nevertheless, it seems like Bath never experienced the decadence of such places. It would seem that the industrial age never set foot in the city and, if it were not for the expensive cars parked on every driveway, Bath could seem stuck in the regency, an almost aristocratic town still filled with tea rooms, galleries and expensive restaurants; a brick fortress traversed by the Avon river, where one feels it would be perfectly likely to see Austen herself round the corner, coming out of a ribbon shop, or peering out of a window, behind a pile of paper and ink. Bath is, I think, the perfect city to write a novel.
Jane Austen’s family live in 4 Sydney Place, although the Jane Austen Centre is now in Gay Street. There is also the Regency Tea Room, where you can have lunch or a cuppa in true Austenian style. You can check opening times and the address here.
In Bath you can also visit the Assembly Rooms, the beautiful ballrooms where Austen probably danced (Catherine and Isabella certainly did) See that here, and feel like a true Georgian heroine. Also, the Pump Rooms, where the Northanger Abbey ladies reunited for tea during the day and which belong to the Roman Baths, are a fancy place for lunch, check that out here.
Have you been to Bath?
Did you like it? Which places do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!