|The Statue of Jane Austen in the Jane Austen Centre. She stood 5 ft 6 inches tall.|
Jane Austen (1775-1817) only lived in Bath, England a few years, 1801-1806, yet two of her six novels are set there, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Bath is that kind of place. It may not make you a novelist, but it does leave an indelible impression.
Let’s take a glimpse at Bath as Jane Austen saw it and glance at her circumstances. It hasn’t changed much. The city was a spa then and now, as it has been since before Roman times. In Jane Austen’s day it became a playground for wealthy families, with gala balls and a rich social environment. Today, tourists flock, directors film their movies here. Cobbled streets. Stone houses that almost seem like monuments. Tea rooms abound.
But, let’s back up a pace or two and talk about Jane’s Bath and her writing. I always hated lengthy, involved deconstructions in high school English class. The teacher destroyed a good story, going on and on about symbols that sailed over my head like a poorly hurled vase.
My boredom wasn’t entirely the teacher’s fault. He was in his wilting 50s. I was a hormone raging seventeen year old. Different times of life. Different experiences. And how could he have possibly known Jane Austen’s mind? She was 25 or 26 when she moved here, half his age and triple his imagination.
So, I’m only going to throw you one triumphant point about Jane Austin’s novels. They’ve lasted. Seems like a new film, or TV interpretation comes out yearly. (For my money, BBC is far and away the best). Jane’s plots still ring true, with characters you’d recognize in your own life. Interfering parents. Loves won and lost. Stuffy know-it-alls. Busy bodies. Iron clad social codes. Jan Austen wrote novels about the same sorts of people you find in your town, or next door, or in your family. For those reasons, today’s reader still finds her prose witty and alive. Grab one of her books. I’ll leave the rest to you.
Jane Austen was a keen observer of the ins and outs of matrimony, yet she never married. Came close once, but broke the engagement off the morning after she’d accepted. She wrote of courtship, and nailed the doubts and fears and false assumptions, as though she’d been in love a hundred times. As with any good novelist, she had a hawk’s keen eye, not only for romantic threads, but also familial situations, social mores, poverty and excess, slights and human strength. In short, she wrote a fictionalized rendition of early 19th Century society, which in the human elements mirrors our own.
For her, the city of Bath was a microcosm. Although she lived there only a short time, a lot happened to her here. The family changed residences several times: 1 The Paragon, 4 Sydney Place, Green Park Buildings (no longer standing), 25 Gay St.
|The blue door marks 4 Sydney Place.|
Her parents married at one of Bath’s local churches, St Withins Walcot, and her father died during the family’s time in Bath, throwing the family into poverty. The words of Mrs. Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice come to mind, “Oh, Mr. Bennett! We are ruined!”
In Northanger Abbey, you’ll find as much or more romance and comic misunderstandings and emphasis on social standing and wealth, as you find in Pride and Prejudice. Set in Bath, the city is everywhere in evidence, from visits to The Pump Room, to The Royal Crescent, and everything in between.
|The Royal Crescent|
"They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight… they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy and she felt happy already. They were soon settled in comfortable lodgings in Pultney-street."
|A painting of Pulteney Bridge as Jane would have seen it. Things haven't changed much.|
|Another view of Bath's magnificent Georgian architecture.|
Want a summation of this delightful novel? Catherine Morland loves Henry Tilney. Catherine’s friend, Isabella Thorpe, loves Catherine’s older brother, James. The Tilneys and Thorpes scheme to find the proper matches for their children. James is a good friend of Isabella’s brother, John. But, John is comically rude and overbearing. Ignoring Catherine’s spite towards, John, the Thorpes naturally decide Catherine is a good match for him. You can take it from there! Complications galore. Fun poked at one and all. Characters you love and those you’d love to slap.
The other Austin novel written with Bath and its environs in mind, Persuasion, is another lighthearted example of romance, familial battles, and love lost and won and lost and won.
Both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published in 1818 after Jane Austen’s death. How did she die so young (42)? Various theories, the latest of which is tuberculosis, perhaps contracted from raw milk.
I’ve already mentioned many of the sites you’d want to visit in search of the real Jane Austen. But, don’t forget the Jane Austen Centre, located at 40 Gay Street, just down the block from where Jane lived at 25 Gay Street. http://www.janeausten.co.uk
|The Jane Austen Centre|
The beauty of Bath, England is that it’s so well preserved. You can’t see Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ London. Well, you can, but it’s so overgrown you’ll need a guide and an imagination vivid enough to picture Washington D.C. as a swamp. In Bath, on the other hand, you can experience almost exactly what Jane saw. You can walk the same streets, view the same buildings, read her descriptions and test the accuracy for yourself. Have tea at The Pump Room, any of half a dozen other places. Take a ride in a horse drawn carriage.
|Tea at The Pump Room|
Bath has not forgotten her famous daughter and writer. There’s even a Jane Austen day and Regency Ball, when revelers flood the streets in 18th Century costume. The next one is June 2016. Go to the link above and read all about it. Hey, you can even rent a costume and wig!
When you’re in Bath, to paraphrase what was said of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, if you seek Jane Austin’s monument, look around you.