It’s nearly noon on a chilly weekday in the Georgian City. Lifting the draped curtain at the upper storey of the Jane Austen Centre one can see across the road to Queen Square- to the bare trees and a windswept bench. In the leafy months to come, that bench will be the perfect spot for sandwiches and contemplation, but today, even the sky has goosepimples. At least its colour, as on many recent days in the first proper winter for years, is a beautiful eggshell blue. It’s enough to tempt one out to take the air. We’ll take just a short stroll then, a well-wrapped saunter, to see what Queen Square can tell us about Jane.
Of course, we are still in the Bath of 2001, and there is traffic to negotiate, but once through the entrance, the atmosphere is as settled as the skirts of a sedate matron. And somehow, ugly as it is, you can’t ignore the yellow-grey central obelisk. All the tidy gravel walks lead to it – or rather her. She watches over the whole of the square.
“My mother hankers after the square dreadfully” –
Now, whose voice was that? It’s no good getting fanciful with all this order around. Why should we assume the spirit of the place is female? Queen Square was, after all, designed by a man. Back in 1732, the young John Wood planned it as a cross between Caesar’s garden and a playpen for lovers of “Decency and good order”. It would have a pallisade to separate it from the “land common to Men and Beasts, or even to Mankind in general.”
And still, in 2001, an air of staid gentilty lingers along its pathways. All is measured and contained, fenced off from the world the flesh and the traffic. Very pleasing to the eye, but it must be said that a playful spirit might just experience a sense of restraint and hardship here.
“I cannot get out, as the starling said.”
That voice again. Well, she did stay here – in 1799. In the far south west corner of the square, by Chapel Row – Number 13. It was Mrs Austen’s heart’s desire to stay at Queen Square. She came with her financially-fortunate son, Edward, to take the waters, and with his wife and child. Oh, and Jane, the younger of the two unmarried daughters. Did she tag along willingly enough? Surely it was better than staying with Uncle and Aunt Leigh-Perrot, in the Paragon, after all. Jane sat in the top window and wrote one of her chatty, catty letters to sister Cass, saying that their lodgings had an open, airy aspect. Perhaps she noticed the three Lombardy poplars which sent their shivery long shadows into the future – Mother, Cassandra and Jane. They’d be back in Bath to stay in the draughty new century, in less happy times. A taste of the times to come. Perhaps she watched young ladies – younger, prettier and richer than herself – who had come to Bath to be “fashionable, happy and merry,” flit about below. She could almost hear their bubbly voices – “remember, Papa, we must be in a good situation – none of your Queen-Squares for us!” And who could blame them, really? But what couldn’t be cured must be endured – or ridiculed. She told Cass about the fat woman in mourning, their landlady, Mrs Bromley. Or rather she wrote, rather than told. It was hardly prudent to say half the thoughts in one’s head.
“A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world.”
There’s that voice again – playful, irreverent. Whose voice breaks the decorum of this staid corner of Bath? Why no-one’s – unless it’s the spirit of the little black kitten that runs about the staircase.
Sue Le Blond has been a teacher since 1973. She loves to teach and enjoys enthusing about JA and literature in general. While now working a few days each week at the Jane Austen Centre, she spends the rest of the week at Chippenham College teaching English. At present she is studying Creative Writing for therapeutic purposes at University of Bristol. Sue lives in Bradford-on -Avon with her husband, two teenage children, and lovely cats.
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