“It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens. We might go into the labyrinth every day!”
This month, Jane Austen intends to give us the slip. We’ll have to be both nimble-footed and nimble-witted if we are not to lose sight of her in a maze of irony. For the well-bred, dutiful Miss Jane, the younger daughter [though not so very young at twenty-five] of the Rev. George Austen, is putting on a brave, bright face on her parents’ decision to retire to Bath. She fills her artificial days with busyness. There is so much to do – should her meagre allowance stretch to it. On the Fourth of June, for example, there will be the annual concert with illuminations and fireworks for his majesty King George’s birthday – you know, that royal personage with a rather slender hold on reason.
“Even the concert will have more than its usual charm with me as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound,” comments Jane, rather sourly.
At the far end of Pulteney Street, just across from the smartest pleasure grounds outside London’s Vauxhall, we’ll find 4, Sydney Place. It bears the only plaque to Jane in the entire city. Here she lived from 1801 until late 1804. The architect responsible for this part of Bath, Thomas Baldwin, clearly wore out his set-square when he did his planning. A balloonist’s view would resemble nothing so much as a pair of straight-laced spinster sisters who have turned their backs on each other, lain their heads on the fountain at Laura-Place, and, at the far end of the boulevard, angled their prim knees at 45 degrees to form the perfect diamond of Sydney Place. But times and tastes changed, and in the wilder 1790s, one Charles Harcourt-Masters planned Sydney Gardens in accordance with the new fashion for serpentine paths, shady bowers and “deep romantic chasms”.
Oh, and labyrinths.
Jane was to forge a love-hate relationship with such paradoxically cultivated wildernesses. When this strange, benighted interlude in Bath was over, she would write in “Mansfield Park” of her hot and morally confused characters winding in and out of such paths in a tedious great house’s park.
“We looked down the whole vista and found it enclosed in iron gates.”
Never mind, for surely the essence of civilisation is the control over nature? Here are sweet woods and verdure enough to calm the restlessness that seems to afflict the younger Miss Austen. The walk along the new canal, for instance, offers a tantalising glimpse of the distant hills beyond Bathampton, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. And here, too, are attractive little cast-iron bridges springing forth from the thick vegetation over the tow-path, carrying one across the span of the wonders of the new technology, saving one’s summer slippers and the muslin hem of one’s sky-blue gown from mud. And here is a tempting tuffet where one can sit, like not-so-little Miss Muffet, and await the descent of the inevitable spider of anxiety from the tree above.
No, Cassandra, I do not want you to draw my portrait. Do I speak clearly for once? Is that view of my back in my blue gown and bonnet a talking silence or a silent silence? Perhaps my unspoken opinion will linger in the air of Sydney Gardens longer than my letters to you, so easily destroyed at the touch of a match.
Why did Jane turn her back on Cassandra in that blue-gowned portrait of 1804? It seems she did want to be invisible, to escape the quizzing glasses of what she would call in “Northanger Abbey” a neighbourhood of voluntary spies. And to quote from another child of the future: And this iron gate, this ha-ha, give me a sense of restraint and hardship. I cannot get out, as the starling said.
In Jane’s head the ironies must have been buzzing like a migraine. She had ideas, yes, but not ideas for a new story, so much as ideas that she really ought to be writing a new story, which is the worst of all worlds.
And all she could think of was the symbolism of the labyrinth.
In Jane’s day, the labyrinth extended over a large area on the left-hand side of the upward-sloping gardens, between the bowling green and the canal. It included some deliciously Gothic features, such as the moss-covered grotto with its underground passage leading to the centre of the maze. A revolving wheel would take you up in a dizzy ride above the trees and hedges where you could see the lost souls still wandering around below. How she must have longed for distant Hampshire, to feel the rush of fresh air, to sniff the haymaking, the wild garlic, the violets – the quiet things, the true things she ached for in the “white glare” of the artificial city.
And as she rode, she might have counted the revolutions of the massy wheel, like the years that are constantly turning. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven and no protection against the “years of danger”. No interest from baronet blood or even clergy blood, thin as it was, for the second daughter of the elderly George Austen.
What should she do? Sir Philip Sidney- were the Gardens named for him, she wonders- said “Look in thy heart and write”. Very well. In her heart then, are all single women. Imagine a family of – not two, but four single, penniless spinsters, with an elderly father, say a clergyman. What should be their name? Why, the Watsons of course. What sons – she smiles thinly at the poor pun – would go through such stasis, such doubts? She thinks enviously of her brothers, so free to take on the world. Let a spirited Watson sister speak: she has a voice. She says “I had rather be a teacher in a school – and I can think of nothing worse – than marry a man I did not like.” But another one says: “You know we must marry. It is very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at.”
She must name these sisters, these voices. Elizabeth? Emma? Yes, Emma. I’m a… I’m..I…I…I…
The very heart of Jane’s labyrinth has been reached.
There are very few letters and nothing except the fragment called “The Watsons” from Jane’s time in Bath. Jane Austen simply disappears from view among the foliage. We lose her voice altogether, and all the eager would-be biographer is left with in this leafy month is the soft-brained mocking coo of a pigeon.
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.
Sue is always happy to receive email feedback and comments.
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