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Jane Austen's Bubbly Bath

By Jessica Portner
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 12, 1999; Page E02
   


In her novels, when Jane Austen satirized the well-heeled denizens of fashionable towns squawking about the latest scandal or gossiping about some unfortunate social pairing, the English city of Bath was usually her inspiration. When the budding author's family moved there from the Hampshire countryside in 1801, Bath--in southwest England, about a two-hour drive from London--was the epicenter of English society. The wealthy classes, just like their yuppie descendants today, flocked to the resort and natural mineral springs where the Romans erected their bathhouses 2,000 years ago. They came as much for the bubbly social life as for the spas.

Although Jane Austen lived in Bath for only five years while in her late twenties, she gathered her juiciest literary material here. Now, a new guided walking tour run by the city's Jane Austen Centre will show you precisely where the keen social satirist collected her dirt. On the leisurely two-tour trek that zigzags down cobblestone boulevards to 15 locales that punctuated Austen's life and fiction, you can almost hear the rattle of horse-drawn carriages ushering gentlemen and their well-coiffed ladies to afternoon tea.

Aside from the conversion from carriage to automobile and the occasional movieplex, Bath has changed surprisingly little in 200 years. And thanks to Bath's strict historic preservation statutes, nearly all the author's former haunts are in near-pristine condition.

The tour, which loops around the heart of the city, begins at 25 Gay St., the Austen family's apartment house. Tucked in a sloping avenue abutting Queens Square Park, it was a smart address. The Rev. George Austen, an Anglican clergyman, had relocated the family to Bath in part because it was an ideal venue to find well-bred husbands for his twentysomething daughters, Jane and Cassandra.

The Jane Austen Museum in nearby Chawton, where she spent her last years before dying in 1817 at age 41, may contain Austen's letters and writing desk, but Bath is where the young lady learned to dance. A favorite spot for such courtship rituals was the grand old Theatre Royal, where both Austen and her characters were frequent visitors. When I went, the modern drama "Return to the Forbidden Planet" was playing on the modest stage. But it is easy to imagine Austen perched in the red-velvet balcony, dreaming up the scene in "Persuasion" in which the sensible Anne Elliot remarks on the "elegant stupidity" of Theatre Royale patrons who segregate themselves in private parties.

A quarter-mile south is the Pump Room, where newcomers of the 1800s would meet and greet while they soaked up the curative odors of the spas. Perhaps Austen is betraying her dislike of social mixers when she writes in "Northanger Abbey" that the Thorpes and Allens "stayed long enough in the Pump Room to discover that the crowd was insupportable and there was not a genteel face to be seen."

Catherine Morland, the sober heroine of "Northanger Abbey," did find the famous Assembly Rooms on Barlett Street amusing, however. The giant stone structure--a precursor to the modern mall--was a sort of entertainment complex where townspeople would gather to play cards, warm themselves by the stone fireplace or attend an important ball. It is on these broad dance floors that Austen once waltzed under gold-plated ceilings. Concerts were frequently held in the upper rooms, but Austen was reportedly less interested in hearing the latest tunes than in eavesdropping on society chatter.

The urban hubbub of Bath was at times taxing for Austen, who was a country woman at heart and longed to return to the provincial life. But she certainly liked to shop. In the center of town is bustling Milsom Street, where Jane and Cassandra would parade in their lacy frocks and admire contemporary oil paintings at the street's print shops. Most of the old tea shops and jewel-doored haberdasheries now house a Marks & Spencer department store and galleries selling Jackson Pollock-type abstracts. But you can nearly conjure the smell of fresh apple tarts at Molland's pastry shop, where the characters in "Persuasion" took shelter from a driving rain.

It was on Milsom Street that the frivolous Isabella Thorpe in "Northanger Abbey" spied the "prettiest hat you can imagine in a shop window--with coquiette ribbons!" "Oh, who could ever be tired of Bath?" Catherine Morland swoons after a shopping spree. "I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath." In a testament to the durability of literature, the very same buildings where Austen rustled her petticoats two centuries ago now house swanky bookshops selling her novels.

Admission to the Jane Austen Centre is about $6.50; the guided Austen tour is about $4. The tours are offered Wednesdays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. For reservations or more information, contact the Jane Austen Centre, 40 Gay St., Bath BA1 2NT, telephone 011-44-1225-443-000, www.janeausten.co.uk.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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