By Heather Clarke
Did Governor Phillip meet Jane Austen in Bath? It is quite possible.
Arthur Phillip retired to Bath in 1793 to recover his health after five years as the governor of the colony of New South Wales. While on occasions he was obliged to live elsewhere, the elegant city of Bath continued to be his favoured place of residence for the rest his life.
Jane Austen first visited Bath in 1797 and dwelt there with her family between 1801 and 1806.
Bath was at the cultural heart of Georgian and Regency society. The most fashionable people flocked to Bath in the season to enjoy the curative powers of the mineral waters and to consort with the fine company gathered there. Central to this were the splendid Assembly Rooms, “the most noble and elegant of any in the kingdom”2. Together with card-playing and concert-going, dancing was a key element to the experience. Dances were held every night, with at least two balls given each week during the season. These enchanting affairs were presided over by a master of ceremonies with the strictest decorum; however, the dances themselves encouraged a certain degree of flirtation. Balls began with minuets, followed by country dances, cotillions and reels.
Both Governor Phillip and Jane Austen are known to have attended balls – did their paths cross? They certainly would have danced the same fashionable dances of the season. Every year collections of the latest dances were published; these invariably bore the inscription As they are performed at Court, Bath, and all Public Assemblies, highlighting the pre-eminence of Bath and the significance of dance in genteel society.
Comparing the lives and places Arthur and Jane frequented, it is clear they both trod in the same places, moved in similar circles and perhaps had a number of mutual acquaintances.
Although Phillip was mostly not a permanent resident in Bath at the same time as Jane (1801-1806), he did spend a considerable amount of time there and upon retiring in 1805 purchased “a large and commodious house at No 19 Bennett Street”. As befitted a person of Phillip’s standing, this was situated in one of the most prestigious areas of the city, a handsome new Georgian dwelling, just above the Assembly Rooms.