Exploring Jane Austen’s Bath -Part 1

The light of the chandelier glistens across the ballroom, the hubbub of the Assembly Room fills the air. The minuet begins and your empire waist gown rustles as you try to find your partner before the magic and wonder of the ball begins…

The Regency Era commenced towards the end of England’s Georgian era when George III was deemed unfit to rule. George IV ascended to the throne as the kingdom’s regent and this period of monarchy lasted from 1811-1820. This was the age of elegance, fine arts, grand architecture and most notably, high fashion and refinement exhibited through high empire waistlines, Spencer jackets, grand balls and the emergence of Spa Towns.

Bath was one of the highly-coveted, spa towns of the Georgian and Regency era. It is the location where an abundance of families would venture not only to ‘take the waters’ as a method to restore one’s health but also for ‘the season’, a time where young ladies were presented to society to be courted and hopefully engaged to be married. It had previously been an unremarkable Elizabethan town but was rebuilt in the elegant Palladian style by the father-and-son architectural partnership of the Woods.

Bath is a wondrous city to behold, with so many enchantments to catch the eye and it also became a significant place of inspiration for Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are both set in Bath and after relocating to the spa-town in 1801, Austen developed an uneasy relationship with the city.

Austen had grown attached to her beloved childhood in Steventon, an idyllic rural village in Hampshire. The Austen’s initially moved to Baths as a method of restoring Mr Austen’s health. Spa towns were at their height of popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries and vacations there promised not only excitement and employment but also the revitalisation of health by ‘taking the waters’ at the Pump Room and Roman Baths. For her first few years in Bath, Austen lived at the beautiful, No.4 Sydney Place. However, when Jane’s father passed away in 1805, Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother were left in a financially unstable position. Consequently, they were forced to move from the elegant surroundings of Sydney Place (just next to the whimsical, Sydney Gardens) to Green Park, Gay Street and finally, the undesirable Trim Street.

In her novels, Austen mentions infamous sites which you can still visit today, including The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, and Sydney Gardens. Despite Bath’s wonder, bustle and fashionability, the abrupt move was not taken easily by Jane and Cassandra, as we see reflected in her final novel, Persuasion. The novel’s heroine, Anne Elliottexperiences sharp reservations about relocating to a vibrant city life.

From Persuasion:

‘There had been three alternatives, London, Bath, or another house in the country. All Anne’s wishes had been for the latter. A small house in their own neighbourhood, where they might still have Lady Russell’s society, still be near Mary, and still have the pleasure of sometimes seeing the lawns and groves of Kellynch, was the object of her ambition. But the usual fate of Anne attended her, in having something very opposite from her inclination fixed on. She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her; and Bath was to be her home.’

Nevertheless, Austen did enjoy the many enticements of Bath, attending concerts and balls and going shopping all make their appearance in Northanger Abbey, through the eyes of the imaginative Catherine Moorland…

‘Oh! Yes. I shall never be in want of something to talk of again to Mrs Allen, or anybody else. I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am at home again; I do like it so very much. If I could but have Papa and Mamma, and the rest of them here, I suppose I should be too happy! James’s coming (my eldest brother) is quite delightful–and especially as it turns out that the very family we are just got so intimate with are his intimate friends already. Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?’

Read Part 2 about locations to experience Jane Austen’s Bath: Exploring Jane Austen’s Bath -Part 2

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.