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August in Regency Bath

Regency Bath

August in Regency Bath

August is upon us in Bath, a month of limp leaves and in Jane’s day at least, empty streets. It’s hot and humid, keeping one “in a perpetual state of inelegance” as Jane would say. Will it keep bright as well? Mrs Allen, we have “no doubt at all of its being a fine day, if only the rain would hold off and the sun keep out”

Let the Mrs Allens of this world crave the sun, but Jane is already feeling cranky. “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations I think I see more distinctly through the rain,” she comments enigmatically.

So what was Jane Austen doing to get through the fine weather vacuum of August ? “The prospect of spending future summers by the sea is very delightful” she had said, trying to put a brave face on things when the move to Bath was announced. But excursions to Sidmouth apparently had to wait until the autumn months. So much of Jane’s life seems to be held in suspension until its autumn until she was well into her thirties. The trivial details of her years from 1801 and 1804 the choosing of a sponge cake, the chat about the cut of the gown – are lost to us forever, alas. Why did Cassandra destroy those letters?

But before the speaking silence descends, we still have a handful of brittle, chatty missives to her sister. Cassandra, for the record, was lingering and who could blame her?- with the Lloyds, in rural Hampshire, putting off the parting with old friends and neighbours.

Already, Jane evidently has a restless mind and – what would be praised in her heroine Catherine – an “elastic step”. Like a fly in a china teacup, she feels trapped in all the “white glare” of Bath’s bowl. She is all too eager to walk up to the point where the long elegant terraces give way abruptly to the villages of Charlcombe, say, or Widcombe or Weston . Up there is an altogether more natural mix of straggling cottages, grey churches and the folding countryside, with fields ripening for the harvest.

Just such a quiet walk is the route to the church of St Mary the Virgin, Charlcombe’s tiny, unworldly church. Did she smile ironically to discover that Henry Fielding, whose “Tom Jones” she could not help but admire and deplore, had been married here? What a “Henry” – the Austen family shorthand for a mercurial charmer, based on her favourite brother’s name – was Fielding. And what glorious unexpected twists there are in human nature! In more ways than the obvious, a wander down Charlcombe Lane refreshes the soul. But Jane Austen seems to need to go further, seek the wildness of the remoter areas. Starting with Lansdown to the north, Weston, Beechen Cliff and Claverton Down mark the four points of the compass from Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s house at No 1 the Paragon. The Bath Guide of 1800 would have assured her that the access to the hills “is now safe, easy and pleasant” and the air breathed from the summits “is as beneficial to health as the prospects are picturesque.” Armed with such recommendation, Jane’s only difficulty is deciding which climb to take first.

At this point, in 1801, Jane’s sedate admirer, a certain Mr Evelyn, offers to take her for an airing in his “bewitching phaeton and four“. Surely, even by the standards set at No 1 the Paragon, there can be nothing wrong in accepting? Is not this Evelyn middle-aged and a friend of Jane’s brother Edward? Besides, writes Jane blithely, “he collects groundsel for his pet birds, and all that“. Unfortunately, however, the breath of scandal has tarnished Mr Evelyn’s reputation. His name has been linked with an adulterous affair. Aunt Leigh-Perrot is, as ever, “particularly scrupulous on such matters,” such as the impropriety of “men and women driving about the country in open carriages.” Jane was soon to put a few desultory finishing touches to her story of “Susan” later to be named “Northanger Abbey” before buying into hope by submitting it to a publisher called Crosby. She makes the conventional Mr Allen drone on to the naïve young heroine that such delicious freedoms as airings in phaetons are “not at all the thing.” So no more rides on the tops of the hills with male companions, however outwardly respectable.

That leaves only one possible mode of transport. Luckily, Jane was already acquiring a reputation amongst her friends and family as a “desperate walker”. In the next letter of this summer, we find that Cassandra has been angling for Jane to find a suitable female companion for her rambles. A certain Mrs Chamberlayne is suddenly, momentarily caught in the biographers’ searchlight. Jane calls her a ” capital” walker, and admits she has met her match for speed and fitness. Despite their ankle-length narrow gowns, the two ladies “posted away under a fine hot sun” up Sion Hill to Weston, each trying to outpace the other. Mrs C. crossed the churchyard at Weston “with as much expedition as if we were afraid of being buried alive.” It’s a telling slip that Jane says “we” rather than “she”.

Thank goodness one could still wriggle out of a sense of premature burial through a fictional world. At times like this, Jane Austen’s imagination hankers uncharacteristically after the wild, the grand, the sublime the settings for the Gothic novels she was to mock with her rational self. The young people in “Northanger Abbey” seem to share their creator’s physical restlessness. Catherine Morland who at ten years old had been noisy and wild hating confinement and cleanliness, at seventeen enjoys a brisk walk and a strenuous climb with her new friends Henry and Eleanor Tilney. They take the picturesque route along the winding eastern bank of the River Avon, with before them the prospect rearing up of Beechen Cliff, “That noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath“. Despite the weir and the gentrification of the opposite banks with their gardens and stately hotels, the landscape has in fact changed very little. There are still the steep steps up the lane – reeking of wild garlic – to the glorious panorama of the city from the bald crown of the hill. Catherine, who blindly imitates Henry Tilney’s artistic jargon – surely delivered tongue in cheek – dismissed the view as unpicturesque? Today we might find our charming hero’s talk of “foregrounds, distances and second distances sidescreens and perspectives” irrelevant in the face of random modern buildings and the looping railway line, but even so, we can’t fail to be impressed. As long as height in itself is wild, then Beechen Cliff remains as wild as ever.

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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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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February in Regency Bath

It’s nearly noon on a chilly weekday in the Georgian City. Lifting the draped curtain at the upper storey of the Jane Austen Centre one can see across the road to Queen Square- to the bare trees and a windswept bench. In the leafy months to come, that bench will be the perfect spot for sandwiches and contemplation, but today, even the sky has goosepimples. At least its colour, as on many recent days in the first proper winter for years, is a beautiful eggshell blue. It’s enough to tempt one out to take the air. We’ll take just a short stroll then, a well-wrapped saunter, to see what Queen Square can tell us about Jane.

Of course, we are still in the Bath of 2001, and there is traffic to negotiate, but once through the entrance, the atmosphere is as settled as the skirts of a sedate matron. And somehow, ugly as it is, you can’t ignore the yellow-grey central obelisk. All the tidy gravel walks lead to it – or rather her. She watches over the whole of the square.

“My mother hankers after the square dreadfully” –

Now, whose voice was that? It’s no good getting fanciful with all this order around. Why should we assume the spirit of the place is female? Queen Square was, after all, designed by a man. Back in 1732, the young John Wood planned it as a cross between Caesar’s garden and a playpen for lovers of “Decency and good order”. It would have a pallisade to separate it from the “land common to Men and Beasts, or even to Mankind in general.”

And still, in 2001, an air of staid gentilty lingers along its pathways. All is measured and contained, fenced off from the world the flesh and the traffic. Very pleasing to the eye, but it must be said that a playful spirit might just experience a sense of restraint and hardship here.

“I cannot get out, as the starling said.”

That voice again. Well, she did stay here – in 1799. In the far south west corner of the square, by Chapel Row – Number 13. It was Mrs Austen’s heart’s desire to stay at Queen Square. She came with her financially-fortunate son, Edward, to take the waters, and with his wife and child. Oh, and Jane, the younger of the two unmarried daughters. Did she tag along willingly enough? Surely it was better than staying with Uncle and Aunt Leigh-Perrot, in the Paragon, after all. Jane sat in the top window and wrote one of her chatty, catty letters to sister Cass, saying that their lodgings had an open, airy aspect. Perhaps she noticed the three Lombardy poplars which sent their shivery long shadows into the future – Mother, Cassandra and Jane. They’d be back in Bath to stay in the draughty new century, in less happy times. A taste of the times to come. Perhaps she watched young ladies – younger, prettier and richer than herself – who had come to Bath to be “fashionable, happy and merry,” flit about below. She could almost hear their bubbly voices – “remember, Papa, we must be in a good situation – none of your Queen-Squares for us!” And who could blame them, really? But what couldn’t be cured must be endured – or ridiculed. She told Cass about the fat woman in mourning, their landlady, Mrs Bromley. Or rather she wrote, rather than told. It was hardly prudent to say half the thoughts in one’s head.

“A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world.”

There’s that voice again – playful, irreverent. Whose voice breaks the decorum of this staid corner of Bath? Why no-one’s – unless it’s the spirit of the little black kitten that runs about the staircase.

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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