I hope that this journal of my time in Bath should prove to be helpful to you. In reading it may you be spared the numerous faux pas and embarrassments that I was not. I truly feel that if this work should prevent even one other young lady from public ridicule in the Assembly Rooms of Bath then it will have been wholly worthwhile.
It was not particularly late when I turned for bed last night following the surprisingly delicious dinner that Mrs Drewit found for us, that of steak and kidney pie, which she purchased from one of the more salubrious inns within the town. To be perfectly frank I had been grateful that Mrs Drewit had found us anything at all, and I had by no means been expecting to enjoy whatever it turned out to be. I would have felt lucky to have been served with umble pie, my hopes were so low in relation to the odds of her success. I therefore made sure to thank Mrs Drewit heartily for her efforts and for providing such an excellent meal, but it was not long, barely a half hour later when we were gathered around the fire in the withdrawing room, before I felt my eyelids begin to droop. The travelling had taken its toll and I felt I really must bid my Aunt and Uncle goodnight, even though it was only a half past nine in the evening (and usually that would be far far too early, my Aunt informed me, to retire to bed when in town). When in town, certainly in London, it is not uncommon to still be up in the hours after midnight. Even in a city that is so dedicated to health and wellbeing, as Bath most certainly is, to be asleep before a half eleven is unusual. In those with less of an eye to rest and relaxation, people may well be awake for far longer. For example, I have heard that in London the balls at Almacks may run late into the night, whereas in Bath it is absolutely forbidden for them to continue beyond the hour of eleven. However given that we had had such a long journey that day my Aunt agreed that perhaps we should take the opportunity to have an early night; before all the real excitement began the next day.
The following morning we rose later than we had planned, and after a breakfast composed of sweet meats and of Sally Lunn buns (which Mrs Drewit had been especially to fetch earlier that morning) we stepped out into the sunlit streets to make our way to the Pump Rooms.
“The very first thing you must do when you are in town,” said my Uncle as we began our leisurely stroll down the gently sloping hill of Milsom Street, “is to announce that you are here.” (I did already know the purpose of our outing, so I do wonder if he was not saying this in part to remind my Aunt of our present quest, as her eyes were being drawn to both the left and right of us by the inviting haberdashery shops we were passing.)
“Yes, Uncle,” I said in such a way as to invite him to continue his explanation – he had not elaborated over breakfast how the Pump Rooms might be involved in this task. He smiled as my Aunt tore her eyes away from the sign of “Fotheringale’s” and settled back onto him.
“Yes, Eveline. Now my dear, do you recall that I mentioned a gentleman called Beau Nash to you over dinner last night?”
I remembered well. Before I had been overcome with fatigue my Aunt and Uncle had gone into great detail in regards to Beau Nash.
“Everything in Bath is as it is, at least in part, due to Mr Nash’s directions,” explained my Uncle. “It is he who established many of the walks in Bath which you can take for exercise, he who established the code of conduct here, and he who oversaw the building of the newest assembly rooms. He has to be the greatest Master of Ceremonies Bath has ever seen.”
“Indeed,” my Aunt had said. “So much so that the title of uncrowned ‘King of Bath’ is his.”
“That is certainly a great honour,” I had assented.
“He’s most well loved in Bath. Although he can be rather strict; for it is he who is responsible for all of the social laws relating to conduct within Bath. It is he who berated the Duchess of Queensberry for wearing an apron to the assembly, and it was he who declared that all of the balls must finish promptly by eleven o’clock.’
“Yes,” added my Aunt. “He even refused to break this rule when once Princess Amelia asked for the dancing to go on longer.”
“That is a brave man to be sure,” I said.
“And tell me,” my Uncle had said, smiling in the gently amused manner that he has. “How do you imagine such a pillar of Bath to look?”
“Well,” I hesitated. “Very well turned out. Tall perhaps, with strong features, and an air of aristocracy?”
My Aunt smiled.
“That is one of the curious things about Mr Nash,” said she. “He is none of those things. Certainly not an aristocrat – he left Oxford and never completed his studies elsewhere, and his father was a glassmaker from Swansea. He is by all accounts a self-made man.” My Uncle nodded in agreement.
“Although also a keen gambler. However this does mean that gambling in Bath is regulated and kept fair and proper with few gamesters in the mix. But as to his appearance, he is outwardly a most average man; average height, average build, dark completion and his face has, as Mr Goldsmith put it, peculiarly irregular features. His main distinguishing feature to those who do not already know him is only really the white hat that he often wears. It commands a good deal of respect.”
“Shall we meet him soon?” I had asked, keen to see him in person. My Aunt looked ready to reply but my Uncle spoke too quickly for her.
“In his early days in Bath he would have come to call on us here and officially welcome us to the city – as he does with all prominent visitors to Bath. Now however he is…unable to do so. We must go to the Pump Rooms to be known.”
I looked to my Aunt to see if she would continue with what she had been going to say but she did not. I had gone to bed in much anticipation of seeing him the next day.
As we continued the rest of the short walk to the Pump Rooms I was still very much excited to see the great man who would be announcing our presence in Bath, both by his acknowledgement and through the newspapers. We entered the Pump Rooms, which consisted of a double-height, long, grand gallery. At intervals on each side of the room were a good many full-length windows letting in the mid-morning sunlight. The rooms were filled primarily with ladies and gentleman walking arm in arm, promenading and talking and observing the other people there, who were doing likewise. It was very grand and I was beside myself with eagerness to join them. I quickly cast my gaze among the crowds looking for a plain looking gentleman in a white hat and fine clothes who might be Beau Nash, but not one white hat did I see. Nor did I see any gentleman whom all that were gathered were treating with a sense of reverie, as might be expected to surround Mr Nash, with or without his white hat.
“This way,” my Uncle said, taking my Aunt on his left arm and myself on his right. He led us to where a gentleman in a rich velvet coat was stood overseeing the room.
“Good morning, Sir. Madam, madam,” ventured the gentleman, bowing slightly to my Aunt and myself. I looked at him and quickly saw that he was very tall and far too young to be Mr Nash. I was confused.
“Good morning,” returned my Uncle. “I should like to sign the subscription book if I may.”
“Of course, Sir,” said the gentleman. He bowed once more to us and proceeded to lead my Uncle away.
“I don’t understand,” I had said turning to my Aunt. “Where is Mr Nash? Are we not to meet Mr Nash?” Two gentleman who were passing us at the time that I spoke this laughed, but seeing me start at their sudden noise the closest one to myself inclined his head in a form of apology, despite having not been introduced to me. The one further away went only so far as to stop openly laughing and downgrade his merriment to a large grin.
“Oh Eveline,” my Aunt sighed, smiling herself. “I thought Mr Denison would have enlightened you as to his little joke before we set out this morning. I shall have to berate him for not doing so. Mr Nash, although still the keystone of Bath in spirit, died almost thirty years ago.”
“I thought we were here to announce our coming to Bath?”
“We are my dear; through the subscription book. Mr Denison has gone to pay and sign it for us now. By doing so we’ll be entitled to visit the coffee houses, read the newspapers, be given tickets to attend the balls and concerts, and our presence will be announced in the newspapers themselves. Oh my dear, I am sorry that you did not know. I did not mean for Mr Denison’s little joke to go on for so long.”
I was, of course, crimson by this point – thoroughly embarrassed that anyone should have observed my ignorance of such a long-established and well-known fact. I just pray that I never bump into those gentleman who overheard my foolishness at any of the balls we are now at last entitled to attend…
The journal of Eveline Helm’s time in Bath has made its way online thanks to Jenni Waugh, one of our tour guides at the Jane Austen Centre.
She writes: “I couldn’t resist sharing Eveline’s exploits. I hope everyone else finds them as interesting and entertaining as I did!”