The Washington Post
Shortly after our late-afternoon arrival in Bath, we took a promenade along its storied gravel walk, the same one where Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth found themselves “exquisitely happy” at the end of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
This year marks the bicentennial of Austen’s death, and our party of four had come to Bath to follow in the footsteps of one of Britain’s most beloved novelists, who lived here from 1800 to 1806. Some of the special events planned include a Jane Austen Summer Ball in July (Regency dress is requested) and the 10-day Jane Austen Festival in September, which will feature more than 80 events.
Our stroll took us to that fine Palladian terrace, the Royal Crescent. I wish I could report that the golden sandstone of the buildings glowed in the late afternoon sun, but it was a rather miserable February day and we had not walked very far before the doorman of
No. 1 Royal Crescent, a house museum furnished as it might have been during the late 18th century, invited us in.
This circa-1774 grand abode was the first Royal Crescent house to be completed, and in 2006 it was restored to the splendor of its Georgian heyday, when it was occupied by a high-society family. Today, it welcomes visitors from all over the globe to see the world in which Austen resided.
Family and writing were at its center, and after her father retired, she moved to Bath with her parents and sister.
No. 1 Royal Crescent is furnished with all the fashionable accoutrements of the era: a globe and telescope in the gentleman’s retreat; a collection of curiosities in the hallway; a fine dining room (a novel addition to a home in Georgian times); and portraits and botanical drawings. One modern convenience that the house did not possess however, was a bathroom, though a commode was discretely stored in a cupboard in each room. The doorman, David Symington, informed me that society came to Bath for the winter season, returning to their country houses in the summer, when the stench of the sewers became too much to bear. Below stairs, the kitchen and scullery boasted spices from around the world and some costumes that allowed my daughter Kitty to indulge her love of dressing up.
Soon, it was time to retire to our lodgings, which I confess were not quite as illustrious as Sydney or even Gay Street, two of Austen’s addresses in Bath. Nevertheless, our party of four found our two-bedroom flat with sofa bed in the lounge in a converted Methodist church quite adequate for our needs.
The next morning, we took a 20-minute walk into town and went directly to Gay Street. Alas, Austen’s former residence at No. 25 is now a dental practice, but the Jane Austen Center is located at No. 40, a house similar in size and style. The building is an homage to Austen and her works. The permanent exhibition recounts her life in Bath and the city’s influence on her writing. Two of her novels, “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey,” are partially set in Bath.
We attended a short lecture on Austen’s life by a guide in Georgian costume. The writer, she explained, was the beloved seventh child of a clergyman and his wife, and was very close to her only sister, Cassandra. Her liberal father encouraged her writing and one of her brothers, Henry, was instrumental in launching her literary career.
After the death of her father in 1805, Austen, her mother and sister slipped down the ladder of Bath society, and the family left the city for good in 1806. Although she later became a published novelist, fortune never favored her. She died after a long illness on July 18, 1817, at the family home in Winchester. She was 41.
After viewing copies of various portraits believed to be of Austen, we watched a short film about her life in Bath, then I was dragged to the dressing-up corner by Kitty for more bonnets and dresses. I think she would enjoy a season in Georgian Bath very much, though at age 6, I think it will be some years before Bath society will be sensible to her charms.
The weather had worsened, so we set off, undaunted, for the Assembly Rooms, one of the places where 18th-century Bath residents went to mingle. However, the main rooms were closed for a private function. Thwarted in our endeavors, we walked back toward the Pump Room, where we had a reservation for lunch.
Bath’s 18th-century heyday was inspired by a natural geothermal hot spring that bubbles up in the center of the city. It is the only place in Britain where such water comes to the surface in this way. The Georgians thought that the waters had healing properties. In Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” the Allens were visiting Bath because Mr. Allen suffered from gout. People would bathe in the public baths and drink water from the springs at the Grand Pump, and I am told Austen did both.
Today, the city of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a status awarded not only for its Palladian-inspired architecture but also its Roman archaeology. For as Austen and her companions stood under the chandelier of the Grand Pump Room, wondering if a Mr. Tilney or Captain Wentworth would ever look in their direction, below their feet lay another meetinghouse where their Roman contemporaries relaxed and socialized 17 centuries before.
Stephen Clews, the manager of the Roman Baths and Pump Room, told me later via email that although the baths had been discovered in 1727, Austen would not have been aware that such a massive complex existed below the streets, though she may have visited a small museum in the Guild Hall where the gilded bronze head of the Roman goddess Sulis Minerva was displayed.
Unlike most Roman sites in Britain, which were military garrisons, the Romans created a settlement in Bath in A.D. 43 as a place of relaxation. The baths, which we toured after lunch, have since been rebuilt above the level of the pillar bases, and their green waters still intrigue. The pillars above the baths are from the 19th century, our guide Laura Mountford explained, but the bases that the pillars stand on are Roman. Much of the Roman ruins can be viewed on the tour, including the sophisticated under-floor heating.
Alas, as our 24-hour stay in this historic city came to an end, I doubted that we had made much of an impression on Bath. But the city, its architecture, history and, of course, literature has left a lasting impression on me.