JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (C)


This is the third, in a series of twelve essays about places associated with Jane Austen. It is not a gazeteer, but a collection of places visited personally, with Jane Austen clearly in mind.

C. CITY ELEGANCE

(i) History of Bath

One of the few places in Britain, with hot springs of a volcanic origin, is in the county of Somerset. It was a magical and therefore sacred site for the Celtic peoples in the area, and dedicated to their goddess Sulis. Following the Roman invasion of Britain in the first century AD, the site was named Aquae Sulis, and a classical building was erected upon it- a typical Roman public bath-house. The warm water of the baths encourages the growth of microscopic green algae, hence its colour in the photograph (1).

A town grew up around the Roman public buildings, and even after the Romans left, in the early fifth century, the town remained significant during the medieval period. Monastic buildings were founded there from 676 onwards, and the present great abbey church (1) was begun in 1499. It is still a prominent feature of the city, and escaped the destruction visited on so many ecclesiastical buildings, under Henry VIII, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid sixteenth century. Tourists still flock to see the architectural wonder of the great West Front (2), and the “Jacob’s Ladder” design, rising up each of the two flanking towers.


(ii) The Rise of Neo-Classical Architecture

Architectural tastes in Britain began to change profoundly in the early eighteenth century, when Lord Burlington began to promote the “Palladian” style. This was influenced by the Italian architect, Andrea Palladio (1518-1580) and his illustrated books about Greco-Roman classical styles. Whereas the original classical constructions were either temples or public buildings, Palladio had the revolutionary idea of applying the style to the private houses of the very wealthy. It was what we would nowadays call “conspicuous consumption”.


One of the earliest buildings in the new Palladian style was Chiswick House (3), happily still in existence. Being in the capital, it promoted wide interest in “Palladianism” by the wealthy. No place in Britain showed more enthusiasm for this neo-Classism than Bath.

As John Nellist explains, “By the end of the first quarter of the century the reputation of the city was high; it was becoming a fashionable summer resort for society, who went there when the court left London, to amuse themselves and ‘take the waters’. The importance of this royal patronage created the demand for a suitably impressive style of architecture.” (Ref B)


Perhaps the first building of this new impressive architecture, in Bath, was Queen’s Square (4), built between 1729 and 1736, to the design of John Wood the Elder (1704 – 54). “Wood’s passion for Roman antiquity made him want to provide Bath with a Forum, Circus and Imperial Gymnasium. Only the circus was a success and came to full fruition. The intention was to provide the city with a number of town houses conceived on a monumental scale, and at the same time to impose a unity of design on the whole facade. The result was startingly successful, though Wood’s son was to produce a scheme of even greater impact.” (Ref B)


“John Wood the younger, (1728– 81), acquired a piece of land to the east of the Circus, and there built the Royal Crescent (1767-75). This semi-elliptical block not only improved on his father’s work but also set the pattern for many similar schemes.” (Ref B)

By the start of the nineteenth century the elegance of Bath could seem a bit passé. When Jane Austen stayed in Queen’s Square in 1799, she found it a “cheerful situation”, but by 1814 the Musgrave girls in Tobias Smollett’s novel, “Humphrey Clinker” condemned it as hopelessly, “old-fashioned”. (Ref D)


(iii) Jane Austen as a Bath Resident

As Maggie Lane explains, “Jane Austen was an unwilling inhabitant of Bath for five years of her life. Before that she had been a frequent visitor to the city. It was part of her heritage in both its cultural and its physical manifestations. Perhaps no place has ever so completely embodied the one within the other.

Of her novels only Pride and Prejudice contains no reference to Bath, while two full length studies are offered in Northanger Abbey,
and Persuasion. Separated in their composition by some fifteen years, these two portraits of the same face reveal the subject at different ages and in different moods.

It is not known when she first visited Bath; there may have been many visits while she was growing up. Her uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs Leigh Perrot, owned a house at No 1, The Paragon, where the Austens were always made welcome. We do know that Jane certainly stayed there in the last two months of 1797. In May 1799 there was a change of perspective when she lodged in Queen Square (6) with her mother, brother Edward, his wife and two eldest children, aged five and six. Jane found the situation of Queen Square much more pleasant than that of the Paragon.” (Ref D)


As a country girl, Jane appreciated trees and any green relief from the dominance of stone streets, no matter how elegant. Her characters, in Bath, will often take “country” walks to admire its rural aspects. In Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, accompanies Eleanor and Henry Tilney down the steps by Pulteney Bridge, to take the riverside footpath view Beechen Cliff. From here there is a view down into the city (7).

Maggie Lane (p. 79, Ref D) discusses the naive and uneducated, but “heartfelt spontaneous delight in nature” shown by Catherine Morland, compared with the urbane, educated and sophisticated taste of Henry Tilney, representing the fashionable view of the times, regarding the aesthetics of landscape.

A much more recent view over the city (8) shows the centre still dominated by the tower of the Abbey, and the nearness of open countryside.


Jane’s father, George Austen, suddenly, and unexpectedly decided to retire from his position as Rector of Steventon, and move his family to Bath, in December 1800. George was 69 at the time, so his decision to retire, was not an unreasonable one. Jane, 25 at the time, was not enthusiastic about the move. She had lived happily in the country, at Steventon, all her life, and although she had visited widely, it was quite another matter to live in a city on a permanent basis.

Maggie Lane sympathetically explains the situation, “The sisters, Jane and Cassandra, had made the mistake of both being away from Steventon at once, leaving their parents the privacy to discuss and settle the momentous idea. No wonder that when Jane returned from a visit to be greeted airily by her mother with the news, she is said to have fainted away.

It was not only the greatest change that her life had ever known, but a change which was unwelcome in its nature. To exchange the rambling rectory with its gardens and glebe lands, its opportunities for solitude, liberty, the observation of the seasons and the delight of growing things, for a town house without a garden; to exchange the sense of belonging and being useful to a community for the showy, class-ridden, trivial daily round of a town – these were what she deplored.

All her letters of the next few weeks to Cassandra at Godmersham were subsequently destroyed. Presumably they contained too much anguish and complaint. By January, 1801, Jane had managed to reconcile herself to the idea.” (Ref D)


Although Jane was cast down by the move to Bath, she found that, “Escaping into the country walks with which the environs of Bath abounded, afforded a certain measure of relief.” (Ref D) She renewed her pleasure in the simplicity of the nearby villages of Charlcombe, (“which is sweetly situated in a little green valley”), Weston, Lyncombe, (9) and Widcombe (10). However, for Austen enthusiasts, the passage of two hundred years, and the great population increase in Britain, means that these villages, and their pretty, old houses, are now expensive, desirable residences, and part of the urban sprawl of modern Bath.


George Austen, his wife, and two daughters, were involved in a series of moves around Bath, hampered by their weakened financial circumstances. He had given up his church income from the various “livings” and was dependent upon his savings and the generosity of his sons who made him an allowance. All of this contributed to Jane’s unhappiness in Bath. After only four years in Bath, George Austen died in January 1805, leaving his widow and daughters in an even more precarious financial condition. The three women left Bath for good in June, 1805, and travelled on visits to their many relations in different parts of the country.


(iv) Modern Bath

For anyone interested in Jane Austen, the modern city of Bath has much to offer. Jane even has her own Museum, with a wide range of exhibits. Bath Abbey, the Roman Baths and Museum, and the Pump Room (11) are all open to the public, but to see them all rapidly becomes expensive. Originally, in the 18C people went to Bath to “take the waters” or drink the natural mineral water pumped up from below ground level. The elegant exterior of the Pump Room (11) is still there, but the interior is less so, more like the café in a garden centre (12).


The last time that we were there, a lady pianist was employed to play continually for the customers. I went over and asked if she knew a particular popular piece by Debussy. She didn’t, so I returned to my seat. Do they still employ a pianist, in the Pump Room, or have they all given up in despair?

Another popular spot is the “Sally Lunn’s Teashop”, supposedly named after a real-life pastry-cook who hawked her wares in the streets of Bath in the late 18C. Dalmer, a cook and musician bought her business and made a song about the buns. The present shop in Lilliput Alley (13), dates from the early 17C. The name, “Sally Lunn Bun” refers to a spicy teacake, but is now applied to a wide range of baked products throughout the English-speaking world. There is much dispute about the name and whether she was a real historical character. For more details see Ref E and Ref F.


Walks round the city are inexpensive and very worthwhile. One of my favourite locations is the beautiful Pulteney Bridge, and the dazzling spillway of the River Avon close by it (14).


Maggie Lane discusses, at length, Jane Austen’s love/hate relationship with Bath, concluding, “Her own maintenance depended on her brother’s generosity; the security and stability of the Steventon days was over.” (Ref D)

SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

A. “Colourful Britain” by A N Court, Jarrold, Norwich

B. “British Architecture and its Background” by John B Nellist, Macmillan, 1967

C. “Bath, Official Guidebook”, 1975

D. “Jane Austen’s England”, by Maggie Lane, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986

E. “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, edited Betty Kirkpatrick, Cassell

F. “Sally Lunn Bun” (Wikipedia article)

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Roman baths, and Bath Abbey behind (Ref A)

2. West Front of Bath Abbey, with detail of angel climbing up “Jacob’s Ladder” (Google images)

3. Chiswick House, London, 1725, designed by Lord Burlington (Ref B)

4. Queen’s Square, Bath, 1975 (Ref C)

5. The Royal Crescent, Bath, designed by John Wood the younger, (1728– 81) (Ref C)

6. Queen’s Square, Bath, in 1804 (Ref D)

7. Bath, seen from the surrounding hills, 1794 (Ref D)

8. Bath from the hills above, circa 1975 (Ref C)

9. Lyncombe Hall, near Bath (Google images)

10. The present sprawl of Widcombe across the local landscape near Bath (Google images)

11. The exterior of the Grand Pump Room, Bath (Google images)

12. The “restaurant” of the Grand Pump Room, Bath (Google images)

13. Sally Lunn’s Teashop, claims to be the oldest house in Bath, dated 1680 (Ref F)

14. Pulteney Bridge and the River Avon (Google images)

SERIES SUMMARY

CODE

MAIN SUBJECT

OTHER THEMES

A Hampshire Childhood Introduction-Reminders of the Past
B Kent Country Houses “Improvements”, and Garden Design
C City Elegance History of Bath, Neo-Classical Architecture
D Coastal Scenes Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing
E The Bristol Avon
F The Warwickshire Avon and the Cotswolds Adlestrop
G Return to Hampshire Portsmouth Point
H Winchester Days Medicine in the Early Nineteenth Century
I Locations “Sense and Sensibility” The Regency Period
J Locations –”Pride and Prejudice” The Picturesque
K Locations – “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” The Ha-Ha Boundary, “Lovers’ Vows” play
L Locations-“Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” The Gothic Novel, Irish History
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