In Jane’s day, of course, the winter was the time to gather for the Bath season. Rather than wallowing in the moist heat of July and August in the city’s south-facing bowl, they preferred Bath at a time of year when the buildings can be seen through the bare branches, and when the post-Christmas grey skies bring out the honey-yellow of the Bath stone.
On this iron-grey winter morning, we’re slipping and sliding from Marlborough-Buildings to 40, Gay Street, and wishing we had more leisure to enjoy the beauties of Bath – architectural as opposed to human. For a cruel frost has followed fast on the heels of yesterday’s sprinkling of snow, and the air is sharp – as sharp as the younger Miss Austen’s quill. Hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of such a frost. We’re afraid our noses are becoming as red as Mary Musgrove’s, but, like Sir Walter Elliot, “I hope that may not happen every day.” In fact, we hope to avoid the critical scrutiny of such men as Sir Walter, for he will be sure to scold us for neglecting to use Gowland’s lotion each night. “I advise the constant use of Gowland’s, nothing but Gowland’s, during the winter months.” At least as modern women, we don t have to set out to capture a rich husband as a sole route to financial security. My face is my fortune, sir, she said.
Poor Jane. Thank goodness we don t live like that now.
We suddenly find ourselves in the centre of the Circus. It s very quiet and very cold, with only the sliding notes of starlings and the croak of crows breaking the hush. It’s hard not to shiver at the sensation of being suddenly embraced by the cold, elegant geometry of the eighteenth century. Let’s struggle across the snow to the exit at the top of Gay-Street.
Pause here and think. When we look down this tiered Georgian terrace, it has the appearance of a sort of eighteenth-century Cresta Run. It suggests all the exhilaration and insecurity of another year. Jane Austen had several years like this in her outwardly uneventful life. She looked down this street from number 25, where she was staying after her father’s death in the slippery year of 1805. Yes, despite the name, Gay Street is a disciplined, difficult street, with stark black railings, against which one might well slip and fall.
Yes, it is cold, isn’t it? Let’s pop round to Milsom Street. It’s just round the corner on the left , below Edgar’s Buildings, where Isabella Thorpe had the sweetest lodgings in the world – or was it the treat from Molland’s the pastry cooks which was so sweet? And so, no doubt was the bonnet with the coquelicot ribbons in the shop window down the road. All in Bath is so conveniently situated – then as now – for retail therapy. “Why, here one may step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes!” Providing, of course one has money in one’s net purse – more money than Jane Austen’s own meagre annual allowance of £50.
Turning back to the view from the top of Gay Street, we feel poised, like one of Jane’s heroines, at the beginning of the swoop down into the new year, full of its quiet dilemmas and internal choices. Somewhere between here and Beechen Cliff is the gap between appearance and reality, between passion and prudence, between having money or having none – and maybe having no happiness either, the worst of all worlds. It is the area of Bath inhabited by the wry, cautious, inwardly passionate Miss Austen. Let’s walk carefully down to number 40, open the large blue street door, and let ourselves in.
Sue Le Blond has been a teacher since 1973. 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. She loves to teach and enjoys enthusing about JA and literature in general. At present she is studying Creative Writing for therapeutic purposes at University of Bristol, and is the author of “Down To Sunless Sea”, a novel on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is currently awaiting publication. Sue lives in Bradford-on-Avon with her husband, two teenage children, and lovely cats.
Images supplied by and available from Neill Menneer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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