The Jane Austen Centre: Bath, England (#AustenInAugustRBR)
Please give a warm welcome to the next guest blogger for our Austen in August event: Meaghan from A Cineaste’s Collection!
Just about a year ago I had the incredible fortune to finally visit England. I’ve been an Anglophile my entire life (I am all for reunification). One of the stops on our trip was Bath, Somerset. I believe on my next trip to Bath, I will time it to coincide with the Jane Austen Festival Promenade. Over 500 people dress in Regency attire and walk the streets of Bath. This time, we had to settle for a lovely visit to the Jane Austen Centre on Queen’s Square.
The centre is housed in a Georgian townhouse near the centre of town, populated by friendly staff in period dress. I can’t help but admit I giggled a little at the portrait of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the entrance, welcoming us to the centre. A small gift shop occupies the front room that features Austen’s books, of course, but also lesser known and hard-to-find items like her juvenilia. Guests are then directed upstairs to a rooms with a number of chairs to watch a video while waiting for the next available docent.
The visit officially begins with a very informative talk about Austen’s life and her connection to Bath. Aside from a few highlights, much of what we were told was new information to me. Most surprising perhaps was how much Jane came to despise Bath. She set two of her novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) there but the depiction of the spa town varied greatly. For wide-eyed Catherine Morland (and a much younger Austen), Bath is a glittering place of parties, society and romance. This, as we learned, was likely influenced by Jane’s visits to Bath to see her Aunt and Uncle Leigh-Perrot. They kept rooms in the Paragon and it seems Jane enjoyed her time there. Austen’s character Morland in Chapter Ten of Northanger Abbey expresses her delight in Bath:
“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?”
However, Austen wrote this novel a couple of years before she was forced by strained circumstances to move there. In 1801, Jane’s father decided to retire as rector and move the family (his wife and two daughters) to the Somerset city. She writes to her sister Cassandra shortly after arriving:
“The first veiw [sic] of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly thro’ Rain.–The Sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown, was all vapour, shadow, smoke & confusion.”
letter to Cassandra — May 5, 1801
Perhaps it was the cramped quarters and city living that did not agree with Jane. The social frivolity that had once amused her in small doses was now forced upon her ad nauseum.
“Another stupid party last night; perhaps if larger they might be less intolerable, but here there were only just enough to make one card table, with six people to look over, & talk nonsense to each other.”
letter to Cassandra — May 13, 1801
“We are to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties–they force one into constant exertion.”
letter to Cassandra — May 21, 1801
It is also likely that her misery was intensified that she wrote no novels during the five years the family lived in Bath. By 1806, the Austens had moved numerous times, each place being smaller and less adequate than the last. When Reverend Austen died, the women were too poor to maintain their life in the city and moved in with Jane’s brother, Frank, in Hampshire. After these trying times, the city of Bath becomes a less friendly place in Austen’s work.
Despite her short and relatively unhappy years in Bath, the current residents and visitors could not be more proud of their literary heritage. After we were given the overview by a quite knowledgeable docent, we were set adrift in several rooms of museum dedicated to life in Bath during Austen’s time. While they did not have anything owned by her or her family, they did have numerous genuine items from the Regency period. The Jane Austen Centre does a great deal with very little. Their focus is on what life would have been like for someone like Jane Austen. The last room was dedicated to film adaptations of Jane’s works, including a letter from actor Emma Thompson, highlighted the continual popularity of her stories.
The permanent exhibit is a bit claustrophobic at times, especially if there are a number of people in there as well. Then again, it helps us to understand Jane’s own annoyance at tight spaces. The staff is what makes the place a real treat. They are very well-versed and so enthusiastic. But then who of Jane’s fans aren’t.
Thanks to Meaghan for stopping by and for sharing with us her trip to Bath! Please visit Meaghan at her blog, A Cineaste’s Collection, or find her on Twitter!