I hope that this journal of my time in Bath should prove to be helpful to you. In reading it, may you be spared the numerous faux pas and embarrassments that I was not. I truly feel that if this work should prevent even one other young lady from public ridicule in the Assembly Rooms of Bath then it will have been wholly worthwhile.
You might find this hard to believe, but I have never been to Bath for the season before. Miss Lucy Stevens of Lyme Park goes every year, and even the three Miss Hilliers, who have been living on reduced means ever since the death of their father two years previous, managed to get to Bath for a time last April. The reports they gave of the city on their return were so shining that I’ve had a deep longing to see the city myself ever since. Unfortunately Mother has no inclination to go and nor does Father, so I had resigned myself to the fact that it was unlikely that I would be able to visit there myself. As luck would have it, however, my Uncle Arthur has been called to Bath for business, and my Aunt Charlotte decided that she would accompany him, but knowing that he would be busy for the vast majority of the time thought that she would invite me to also take part in the trip as her companion. I am exceedingly glad that when she had this idea she happened to be staying with us, for otherwise I imagine that another niece; whichever was nearest at hand, might have found herself going in my stead; but perhaps I am being unjust in my estimation. Either way it is thus that I have found myself ensconced in a beautiful townhouse on The Paragon.
That is one of the first things you should know about Bath, I have discovered. Before you even arrive in the city you must prepare, lest you find yourself situated in quite the wrong part of town and quite unable to make any good acquaintances. A person staying on St. James Parade, even if they are an Earl, may be thoroughly snubbed by a lowly Baronet if their rooms are within the Royal Crescent; which is surely the finest work of architecture by the younger of the two John Woods who, my Aunt tells me, were the architects responsible for many of the newest developments in Bath. It must have been quite a sight to behold when the final stone was put in place to complete that grand curved façade those three and twenty years ago. I am yet to see the sweeping curvature of the Crescent however, as well as the interior of the famous Assembly Rooms and the Theatre Royal. There are, I own, a great many sights in Bath that I am impatient to see. I am getting ahead of myself however. Our initial entrance into the city needs to be laid out, for there are details in the journey that I should have found it helpful to be aware of in advance, and which as such must be made note of.
We arrived in Bath along the London Road. We came by my Uncle’s private chaise, which was a great relief to me, as although the postillion coaches are a great deal swifter than they used to be, thanks to the frequent changing of horses at the many coaching inns along the way, I have been warned by Miss Marie Hillier that you are by no means guaranteed an enjoyable journey. It is true that the majority of persons travelling by stagecoach may be perfectly amiable, and that those who are not are most likely to be situated outside on the jumpseats at the back or on the slower mail coach, as these options command a lower fare, but it is also the case that the popularity of the route coupled with the postillion’s advantage of speed can result in a very full inner carriage. That and it is not the smoothest of rides as it is, despite the many turnpikes along the way, each of which demands a toll for the upkeep of the road. As such I was most grateful to be safely seated upon newly upholstered seats of velvet, rather than on the post’s well-worn seats, that must surely be so smooth thanks to their constant use that sliding off them must be a constant danger. Still I do wish that I had had the forethought to wear a thicker cloak so that I may have benefited from my sitting on it. I have not experienced it myself but if you are travelling by a public coach I imagine you would need at least three petticoats and your thickest cloak beneath you to make the journey without pain.
After many hours our journey was drawing to an end and as we entered the outskirts of Bath I was treated to my first glimpses of its pale limestone façades, even more beautiful than I had imagined as they were bathed in a faint pink hue as a result of the setting sun. I was interrupted from my musings, however, as I heard the soft but unmistakable ring of bells tolling in the distance. I turned to enquire of my Uncle if he had read in the papers that a wedding would be taking place at the Abbey today, as it was late-afternoon that we were arriving and there was therefore no other practical reason that I knew of for the bells to be ringing. He did not look as pleased to hear them as I was.
“I am not aware of one,” he said with a woeful glance out of the window.
“I believe the answer my dear, is that the bells of the Abbey are often rung to welcome the arrival of a prominent personage to the city, and that this is the cause in this instance.”
“But Uncle, that’s a charming custom.” I could not understand his melancholy at the sound. “Do not you think it?”
“He does Eveline, I know he does,” my Aunt replied for him. “Mr Denison is simply fearful for his purse.”
“Indeed,” he affirmed. “And before we have even stepped foot outside of the carriage and you two ladies begun to explore the haberdashers. I am beginning to wonder if perhaps it was a mistake to bring you both with me. Perhaps I would have been better to sneak into Bath under the cover of darkness, fail to mention my presence in town, and then creep away unnoticed when my business was complete.” His words I am pleased to say were meant in jest, as while he was speaking them he was also smiling broadly.
“Ignore him. For he loves Bath and it’s peculiarities just as much as I,” my Aunt said.
“I am glad to hear it,” I said. “But I still don’t understand why the ringing of bells should make my Uncle worry. They are one of life’s freely enjoyed delights, are they not? Something for everyone that requires no fee.”
“Oh my uninitiated niece!” my Uncle said, shaking his head in mock sorrow. “In a more provincial town than Bath perhaps, but you will soon learn; everything in Bath has a price. The men who run Bath are most shrewd in that way. The bells ring out,” he explained, “to announce the imminent arrival of an important figure, but it is not an honour without cost. More often than not a servant will have been sent ahead to alert the bellringers in advance and to pay them their fee. Occasionally however, a keen eyed person may see an approaching carriage and, seeing that it is a fine one, may order the bells to be rung, and then the fee may be asked for after the event has taken place. I fear that may be the case here. Honestly, Mrs Denison,” he said turning to my Aunt. “I knew we should have bought a less ostentatious chaise.”
“Nonsense. You are enjoying this just as much as I am. Besides, you know that if we had come to Bath in your old coach we would have been laughed out of town. Anyhow, it may be that the bells are for someone else. In fact I am sure they must be!”
“I may rejoice in the safety of my coins for a few more hours then, it seems.”
“Until Eveline and I go shopping tomorrow for our wardrobes of course.”
“I do not think I can afford to do too much shopping,” I admitted, feeling my cheeks begin to blush.
“That need be of no consequence,” my Uncle declared. “Of course your Aunt and myself would not dream of sending you out into society without our buying at least two new dresses for you; lest you be laughed out of the Assembly Rooms for failing to display the newest of fashions which those hallowed halls require.”
“Of course we would not,” said my Aunt, smiling warmly.
At this declaration I was, I must admit, both aghast at their vast generosity, amazed that my latest sprigged muslin would not do, and also terribly excited at the prospect of a new gown.
To conclude; my first observation for any young lady coming to Bath therefore is this: on no account leave home without your coin purse. You will most certainly require it, and far sooner than you think…
The journal of Eveline Helm’s time in Bath has made its way online thanks to Jenni Waugh; one of our tour guides at the Jane Austen Centre.
She writes: “I couldn’t resist sharing Eveline’s exploits. I hope everyone else finds them as interesting and entertaining as I did!”