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July in Regency Bath

 

“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!”

Westgate Buildings

 

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.

The Hot BathsWe 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,Construction 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,Heiling Court 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!”

 

Up the HillAdmiral 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?

Excelsior! 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.

Camdem Crescent 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”

The View 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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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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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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January in Regency Bath

In Jane’s day, of course, the winter was the time to gather for the Bath season. Rather than wallowing in the moist heat of July and August in the city’s south-facing bowl, they preferred Bath at a time of year when the buildings can be seen through the bare branches, and when the post-Christmas grey skies bring out the honey-yellow of the Bath stone.

A January Day in Bath. Photo by Neil Maneer. On this iron-grey winter morning, we’re slipping and sliding from Marlborough-Buildings to 40, Gay Street, and wishing we had more leisure to enjoy the beauties of Bath – architectural as opposed to human. For a cruel frost has followed fast on the heels of yesterday’s sprinkling of snow, and the air is sharp – as sharp as the younger Miss Austen’s quill. Hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of such a frost. We’re afraid our noses are becoming as red as Mary Musgrove’s, but, like Sir Walter Elliot, “I hope that may not happen every day.” In fact, we hope to avoid the critical scrutiny of such men as Sir Walter, for he will be sure to scold us for neglecting to use Gowland’s lotion each night. “I advise the constant use of Gowland’s, nothing but Gowland’s, during the winter months.” At least as modern women, we don t have to set out to capture a rich husband as a sole route to financial security. My face is my fortune, sir, she said.

Poor Jane. Thank goodness we don t live like that now.

We suddenly find ourselves in the centre of the Circus. It s very quiet and very cold, with only the sliding notes of starlings and the croak of crows breaking the hush. It’s hard not to shiver at the sensation of being suddenly embraced by the cold, elegant geometry of the eighteenth century. Let’s struggle across the snow to the exit at the top of Gay-Street.

Pause here and think. When we look down this tiered Georgian terrace, it has the appearance of a sort of eighteenth-century Cresta Run. It suggests all the exhilaration and insecurity of another year. Jane Austen had several years like this in her outwardly uneventful life. She looked down this street from number 25, where she was staying after her father’s death in the slippery year of 1805. Yes, despite the name, Gay Street is a disciplined, difficult street, with stark black railings, against which one might well slip and fall.

Yes, it is cold, isn’t it? Let’s pop round to Milsom Street. It’s just round the corner on the left , below Edgar’s Buildings, where Isabella Thorpe had the sweetest lodgings in the world – or was it the treat from Molland’s the pastry cooks which was so sweet? And so, no doubt was the bonnet with the coquelicot ribbons in the shop window down the road. All in Bath is so conveniently situated – then as now – for retail therapy. “Why, here one may step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes!” Providing, of course one has money in one’s net purse – more money than Jane Austen’s own meagre annual allowance of £50.

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath: 40 Gay Street. Turning back to the view from the top of Gay Street, we feel poised, like one of Jane’s heroines, at the beginning of the swoop down into the new year, full of its quiet dilemmas and internal choices. Somewhere between here and Beechen Cliff is the gap between appearance and reality, between passion and prudence, between having money or having none – and maybe having no happiness either, the worst of all worlds. It is the area of Bath inhabited by the wry, cautious, inwardly passionate Miss Austen. Let’s walk carefully down to number 40, open the large blue street door, and let ourselves in.

Sue Le Blond has been a teacher since 1973. 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. She loves to teach and enjoys enthusing about JA and literature in general. At present she is studying Creative Writing for therapeutic purposes at University of Bristol, and is the author of “Down To Sunless Sea”, a novel on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is currently awaiting publication. Sue lives in Bradford-on-Avon with her husband, two teenage children, and lovely cats.

Images supplied by and available from Neill Menneer. Contact him at fotoman@acks.demon.co.uk.

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