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May in Regency Bath

We are now fairly into springtime – the only pretty ring-a-ding time, as Shakespeare said, or as Jane Austen put it- Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.

This month, let’s whirl with Catherine Morland through the regular pleasures of a Bath day. It may well be a progress more natural than heroic, more breathless than elegant – but at all costs, my dearest creature, let us avoid being affected or insipid!

It’s broad, bright day. The Pump Room clock says it’s just gone one – and the weather’s as fresh and changeable as youth itself. Outside, on the Abbey’s west face, the stone angels climb and fall on their ladders, as flesh and blood angels climb and fall in each others’ regard in the world of friendships below. Isabella Thorpe has been waiting these ten ages at least – in other words, about five minutes – when our heroine, all eager delight and animation, scampers in to meet her friend.

The morning’s studies have been literary – a systematic reading scheme, provided by Miss Thorpe, to cover ten or twelve monstrous horrid novels. “Oh, my dear Isabella, do not tell me what is behind the black veil! I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton!”. She needn’t worry, for her dear Isabella is eager to exchange talk of “The Mysteries of Udolpho” for the book of life, or at least the visitors’ book in the Pump Room, which is merely a cover for her sly perusal of certain odious young men. They have been ogling her this half hour, and have put her quite out of countenance. Ah! Now they have just quitted the Pump Room, and can be seen swaggering across the crowded Abbey Churchyard in a perfectly insufferable manner. The only way to teach them a lesson, she tells her dear Catherine, can be to show them supreme indifference – by hurrying after them directly.

And so the two young ladies, with their white muslin gowns and orange bonnet ribbons flapping in the breeze, thread their way through the mid-day throng to the archway that leads out of the churchyard into Union Passage. They are moving with the crowds in the general upward direction of Milsom Street, to Edgar’s Buildings – the Thorpe ladies’ lodgings. Isabella links arms with her friend, but still follows with her roving eye the backs of the two young idlers, way up ahead.

She rattles on breathily. Her dearest Catherine must see her sweet new hat or is it that her sweetest Catherine simply must see Isabella’s dear new hat? Amazingly dearer – more expensive certainly – and sweeter than her mother’s new hat, which makes her look such a quiz! Why, Mamma looks like an old witch in it, but she and her sisters would not, for all the world, be the first to tell her so.

The code is clear, then as now. Among females, when purchases have been made, they must be displayed, and a friend’s opinion must be sought. It is useless to tell Isabella, or any other fashion victim, that woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. And Bath – Milsom Street in particular – has a multitude of stylish shops. Why, here one may step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes. It is a tempting square mile for those with limited funds in a small net purse.

But first, the ardent shopper must negotiate the traffic of Cheap Street – a thoroughfare of such impertinent a nature, that in crossing it one gambles with life itself. And here, drawing up on a bad pavement with all the vehemence that could most fitly endanger the lives of himself, his companion and his horse, comes Isabella’s brother John, in one of these odious gigs! Seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding all complete. Here comes the bore, talking endlessly, relentlessly, of all the smart feats and features of his wretched equipage. Even Catherine, so ready to be pleased with the world and all in it, begins to doubt by the end of the second sentence if he is completely agreeable. In vain does she try to remind herself that to a gentleman, a gig is as nice a point as the debate between the spotted and the tamboured muslin. But whereas young ladies are subjected, loud and often, to all the idle assertions and impudent falsehoods of excess vanity, what man will gladly talk of muslins among the ladies?

 

What man, indeed! Conversations from Catherine’s happy dance through the last few days still linger in her memory. “Do you understand muslins sir? You must be a great comfort to your sister”. Oh, where is the bewitching Mr Tilney on this fine May day? But our Catherine, despite her reading diet, has too much common sense to pine away for a young man she may never see again, especially when the present is so full of people and bustle.

“Good heavens, ‘tis James!” she cries, greeting her brother with the liveliest pleasure, as he jumps down from the passenger seat of Thorpe’s gig. Soon the quartet are planning a jaunt to Blaize Castle, “the finest old castle in the kingdom” – well, to the young, everything over thirty years old is ancient- “worth going fifty miles to see“. Nothing ruins horses so much as rest, as John Thorpe says, so let us not waste a minute of a precious day of a six weeks’ stay in Bath.

A brisk walk up Milsom Street will take us up past Mollands’ the pastrycook’s, and on to triumph at the Assembly Rooms at the top of the town. Tonight there will be a Cotillion Ball until past midnight, and Catherine will be dancing in her sedan chair all the way home.

Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath? To echo Dr Johnson’s remark on London, “She who is tired of Bath is tired of life.”

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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