“Westgate Buildings! And whom, pray, is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A mere Mrs Smith, an everyday Mrs Smith? Upon my word, you have the most extraordinary taste!”
Well, yes, perhaps we have got strange taste. This month we begin our walk by slumming it down in the unfashionable end of town, so no wonder Sir Walter is appalled. On a hot and humid Saturday morning in July 2001, the mean lodgings of Anne Elliot’s invalid friend, with their dingy lace curtains over the café, do not look prepossessing. Hereabouts, then, down near the Avon with its “putrid fevers”, the widowed Mrs Smith lived, as she still does, for the fictional world of a well-loved classic bestows its own immortality. After the painful bout of rheumatic fever, Anne’s old school friend is confined to a noisy parlour and dark back bedroom, only quitting the house to be carried down by the bath attendants to the Hot Bath over the street.
We have only to negotiate that same urban street to find ourselves in a dark, incohate muddle of Palladian courts and construction engineering. The Cross Bath and Hot Bath bring us to the very edge of the city itself. Suddenly, beyond the wire fence, there is a gaping hole in the ground where warm, copper-coloured water gushed out of a pipe into a culvert. This is where Bath all began long, long ago, and this is where the future starts. For here, over the site of the old Hot Bath, where Jane Austen’s fictional poor widow found ease for her rheumatic pain, soon there will soar a vast pleasure dome celebrating the hot springs, a multilevel spa with pools and steam baths, jacuzzis and hydrotherapy suites is planned to carry bathers into the twenty-first century. Look at this display in the window – look at the drawings of the architects’ dreams, tinted with rich shades of honey and aqua blue, and it’s all going to be completed in two years’ time – or maybe three.
“No, it isn’t going to be FREE”, mutters an elderly Bath resident, catching the fag end of conversation as he shuffles along the pavement on his way through to the shops in Marchant’s Passage.
Bath has never been a levellers’ city. The high and the low are as much a social fact of life here as the hills and springs are to its geography. Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot would have looked up at the distant lofty heights of her home on Camden Crescent with a gentle but heartfelt sigh at the unfathomable workings of Providence. And what had her former schoolmate, the fair-minded and fine-looking Miss Hamilton, done to deserve her present lowly situation? What had she, Anne Elliot, done to deserve that infinitely superior perch in the fresh, pure air of Camden, up to which she must now make her unwilling ascent?
The climb from river to heights begins up Sawclose, past the imposing faccade on the left. Jane first knew this as the house of Mr Beau Nash, a celebrated past Master of Ceremonies. But in the year of Trafalgar, the year of Nelson-fever, her fourth as Bath resident, it was to open as Bath’s new Theatre Royal. The seats were expensive, probably beyond Jane’s means. But then was not the whole of life – or at least of Bath her theatre? Fine, as long as she could keep on the critics’ side of the footlights.
She would have avoided the crowded scenes of Milsom Street. At this time on a summer Saturday, when shadows and tempers are at their shortest, the eagerness for retail therapy will be rising to a fever pitch. We can sense Jane Austen’s spirit more in the leafy corners of Queen’s Square, and in the graceful upward curve of Gay Street, and round into George Street, along the raised pavement by Edgar’s Buildings. At last, dusty and hot, Jane and her creation Anne stand at the foot of the fearsome hill of Lansdown.
They are both young women still – only twenty-seven years old – but how quickly in this heat one is fatigued. For once it is Jane, the flesh and blood woman, whose voice we can hear: “What dreadful hot weather we have had ! It keeps me in a perpetual state of inelegance!”
“There, take my arm, that’s right! I do not feel comfortable if I have not a woman there!”
Admiral Croft is here – in Jane’s imagination, at least – to accompany her up beyond Belmont, where the raised pavement seems to want trip one up ahead.In real life, however, no such aid was at hand. In 1805, the men were still all at sea, chasing the French across the Mediterranean. “You men have difficulties and privations and dangers enough to struggle with”. Jane’s sailor brothers sent money and topaze crosses, but all through the tense summer of 1805 she would be kept hovering over the newspaper for the whereabouts of Frank’s ship, the Canopus. Her heart turned over every time she thought of her brothers’ danger. How could she complain about merely walking uphill in all the white glare of July in Bath?
Anne Elliot would never murmur complaints. Ah, but Anne Elliot is fiction. Her creator, who says in fact that “pictures of perfection make me feel sick and wicked,” sometimes feels like complaining. The last leg of the climb above Guinea Lane will seem endless, even to one who has been outstriding a certain energetic Mrs Chamberlayne up Sion Hill a couple of summers before. Life to all of us – and Jane Austen was emphatically one of us – can be at times like climbing the Hill of Difficulty – to get to a Heaven one would never deserve anyway.
Rounding the corner, the gleaming perfection of Camden Crescent is reached at last. The big frontage with its Doric columns is as white and regular as an Elliot smile. Shall we follow Anne inside to the marble-floored interior, where her sister and Mrs Clay are sneering at all creation below them, over a cold collation? Anne creeps in, noticed only by the footman, and disappears from the glare of noon. After all, “She was only Anne”
Jane has plans for Anne’s future happiness, even if this story has to wait five, ten years like the grit in the oyster shell that produces a pearl in the end. What is the point of being a writer of fiction if she can’t, like her favourite Cowper’s view of God, move in mysterious ways her wonders to perform? And while she works out reward and rescue for her sensitive solitary heroine, she’ll sit and muse on this seat by the railings and look back over the terrace, over the march of chimneys and the tops of the trees.
On a clear day like this, it’s worth the climb, after all – not to feel superior, but to see the whole pattern.
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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