By Maggi Andersen
Jane Austen lived in Bath for five years and before that was a frequent visitor to the city. Two of her novels are set there: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Separated by fifteen years, Jane’s experiences of a changing Bath color her novels. She wrote Northanger Abbey in the 1790s after a pleasant short stay.
Although Catherine leaves Bath without regret when she, and the narrative, move on to Northanger Abbey, she has experienced no sense of confinement during her sojourn in the city, and has shown no longing for the country. There is a fresh and simple enjoyment of the pleasure of Bath in this novel, expressed by Catherine when Henry warns her that it is de rigeur to become tired of Bath after six weeks:
“Well, other people must judge for themselves, and those who go to London may think nothing of Bath. But I, who lives in a small retired village in the country, can never find greater sameness in such a place as this, than in my own home; for there are a variety of amusements, a variety of things to be seen and done all day long…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?”
In November 1800 Mr. and Mrs. Austen retired to Bath,and a great wrench for Jane, at twenty-five to leave Steventon. Books, pictures, piano – everything had to be disposed of, everything she had grown up with. But it was place, rather than property, which was so hard to leave.
In the new century, the Bath of perpetual confinement was Jane’s own reality when she wrote Persuasion. A thousand houses had been built in Bath in the 1790s alone, although the surrounding country remained unspoiled. As Fanny Burney wrote, “There is always the town at command and always the country for prospect, exercise and delight.”
Bath had played a significant role in the establishment of pleasurable 18th century pursuits of pleasure, polished manners, social contacts and correct taste. People of a certain education, with leisure and enough money to spend, mingled and enjoyed civilized pleasures. As Smollett wrote: “Even the wives and daughters of low tradesmen…insist upon being conveyed to Bath were they hobbled the country dances and cotillions among lordlings, squires and the clergy.”
But no longer content to ‘hobble’ with anyone who could afford the subscription to the assemblies, the gentry developed a desire for greater privacy and exclusivity and began to prefer private parties. “The showy, tonish people who are only to be seen by going to the Rooms, which we never do,” as Fanny Burney wrote in 1780.
Beneath this fastidious layer, which included such snobs as Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Dalrymple, came the ‘clergymen may be’, or lawyers from town, or half pay officers, or widows on a jointure.
But as the lower classes were more numerous than the aristocracy who had first patronized Bath, the city was more popular than ever, and the demand for houses steadily grew.
Jane Austen describes accurately the city she knew so well. The heart of the city has always been the abbey churchyard, called the pump-yard in Northanger Abbey. The spacious area where the sedan-chairs and their blue-coated attendants
waited for customers. The churchyard is enclosed by the west front of the abbey; The Pump Room, with its inscription ‘Water is Best’ in Greek; the Colonnade on the west; and a row of shops on the north, between two of which is the archway which Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe passed through to Cheap Street.
Bath has many public parks, where the pursuits of seeing and being seen could take place. Chief among these were the lawns in front of the Royal Crescent, where it was fashionable to walk on a Sunday; Jane Austen, and her characters in Northanger Abbey, all did so.
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