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March in Regency Bath

It’s a cold, dry, windy day – a Sunday. Despite Jane’s strict opinions on the subject, I hope you are not against Sunday travelling. How about a leisurely stroll from Marlborough Buildings to the city centre via Persuasion’s fictional world? On such an atmospheric afternoon, it’s just a short step from 2001 to 1814.

Buildings in Bath are like people. Their glorious facades are all elegant, symmetrical and intent on keeping up appearances. To suggest that their backs are equally and much more interestingly glorious, would no doubt earn us a cold stare. But it’s true. Looking now at the back gardens of Marlborough Buildings, we can sense, through the smoke of bonfires and tangled dead stems of last autumn, the echoes of servants’ gossip, the white flash of laundry drying. We can see the muddy vegetable gardens, the refuse heaps, the ramshackle privies.

These backs are the province of Nurse Rooke, a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. She has a line – no, not a washing line to air others’ dirty linen, but a line of study. She studies both sides of human nature, both splendid and tawdry. Call it gossip if you will, but she is sure to have something to relate that makes one know one’s species better.

Out of one of these back windows, perhaps on such a day as this, Colonel Wallis’s very pretty silly wife might take her first look at the world after the birth of her baby. I’m afraid her mind still revolves around hearsay. She thinks of her husband’s friend – that man of perfect manners and constant smiles, Mr Elliot. She thinks of his scheme to both marry Miss Anne Elliot and stop Sir Walter marrying the widow Clay, and so to become in time Sir William Elliot. Mrs Wallis can’t really follow for herself the motives of clever, ambitious men, but her Nurse Rooke, so excellent at untangling a botched piece of needlework or knitting, is equally proficient at tying up society’s loose threads and finishing them off neatly.

Silly Mrs Wallis leaves it all to Nurse Rooke, and so must we. Emerging from this fascinating back alley, with Marlborough Buldings marching up to our left, we find ourselves out under the majestic full sweep of the Crescent. It seems to radiate frosty disapproval for those who listen to servants’ tittle-tattle. But these details make up the destiny of people we care about – fictional Anne Elliot, for example, and her real-life creator, Jane Austen. Here is Jane on her sister in law: Mary did not manage such matters in such a way as to make me want to lay in myself. And here she is worrying about her beloved niece, Anna, who is pregnant again, so soon – Poor animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. Over the years childbirth had claimed the lives of no less than four of her sisters-in-law. As for Jane herself, her books were her babies. She admits it in an unguarded moment : ” my own darling child, P.&P.”

Was it not Madame de Stael, in Jane’s own day, who said, “to understand is to forgive all?” Is it such an impertinence to look behind the perfect façade of Aunt Jane, to her tangled back bedroom? After all, front and back together make up the whole. And Jane knew the importance of honesty. Like Anne, she prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.

Now the path becomes more intimate, more enclosed. Trees screen our right hand side just as a high stone wall protects us from a neighbourhood of voluntary spies from the back windows of the Circus. This is the quiet and retired Gravel Walk. Right on cue, a blackbird sings from a tree, and the shades of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth come towards us, totally absorbed in each other. What a part the inglorious and the trivial has played in their destiny – a young woman mistiming a jump from a wall, the lack of an umbrella on a showery day, a pen dropping from a hand in a hotel room.

The tapestry of life, like the architecture of Bath, has a fascinating reverse side, and no-one knew this better than the author of what has been called “at once the warmest and the coldest, the softest and the hardest” of classic novels, Persuasion.

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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