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April in Regency Bath

It’s official British Summer Time has begun, but I’m afraid the only sign of it so far is the lingering twilight. On this chilly April evening, we start our pilgrimage, appropriately enough, on the crossroads. Behind us, the Broad Street to Destruction slopes away: before us looms the Hill of Difficulty up to Lansdown. The fleshpots of George Street’s diners and jazz club beckon us to the left, tempting with us with food, wine, music and people. But first we will mark Holy Week by going east. We’ll follow Jane’s route to church along the London Road, in search of a Paragon.

Ah, but what exactly is a paragon? The dictionary definition is “a model of perfection.” Pictures of perfection make me feel sick and wicked. It’s that voice that we have heard before on our walks, clear as the evening and as crisp as the weather. And I don’t think her temper is improved by this part of town. Ah, this appears to be the Paragon, this severe and stately rank immediately above us, all steep stairs and cold stares, though graceful and imposing in its way. Can this be the planners’ model of architectural perfection? Strange how Jane’s difficult Aunt Leigh-Perrot still seems to dominate this corner with her starchy stinginess. Here’s the niece’s pert voice once more: It’s really very kind of my aunt to ask us to Bath again a kindness that deserves a better return than to profit by it. Whatever does Jane mean – if one can use the word mean without being suspected of a pun. Paragon Wine BarIt’s clear she has no intention of putting herself for a second time under the Leigh-Perrots’ roof, remembering how her digestion was ruined with surreptitious Bath buns ordered to supplement their frugal aunt’s hospitality.

I think we’d better sweep or maybe scuttle on our way past the Paragon, then, hoping to escape detection from any irritating members of the Austen clan.

What’s this? A sudden gap, like a huge cavity in a row of perfect teeth has opened to our right. Just by the Paragon Wine Bar, the ground falls steeply away to Walcot Street, down a flight of perilous dark steps. One thinks of rash actions elopement, flights of passion, abandoned behavior. Lydia and Wickham, Mrs. Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford poor Eliza Williams, left pregnant by Willoughby. Why is it that the men are merely fallible charmers, while the women stay down there, irretrievably fallen, lost?

Chapel of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon Is all passion dangerous in this world of Jane’s? Surely some forms of enthusiasm fail to carry the same risk of social ostracism. How would our guide react to the Gothic edifice a little further along on the opposite raised pavement? A wry smile, no doubt, for this is the chapel founded in 1765 – of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, a Wesleyan supporter of pious memory. But I do not like the Evangelicals. Oh dear. Jane is not easily pleased tonight. But then, who can blame her, hedged in as she was by irritating enthusiasts. Cousin Edward Cooper, for example, sending letters of cruel comfort on a death the family, and turning well-regulated conversation into hectoring discourse on Regeneration and Conversion.

Does not each one of us like to make our own way, to choose their own time and manner of devotion? Do we all have to kneel and gape, starched up to seeming piety?

Come on now, Miss Mary Crawford or is it a thinly-disguised Miss Austen? Don’t pretend to us that your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects.

Residence of Sarah Siddons

Here’s a famous resident of the city to put her into a better humour. The house of Mrs Siddons, the famous actress, can be found at Axford Buildings. Jane’s favorite brother the witty, mercurial Henry, will be interested in this piece of gossip.Does Jane remember the barn at long ago at Steventon, and Henry organizing the Christmas theatricals, and her own spirits dancing at the chance to watch the drama on stage and off it? Henry was considerably the best actor of them all. But.. Henry Crawford or Henry Austen? Doesn’t an indulgence in drama lead to moral danger? Does her own charming brother scholar, soldier, banker and clergyman by turns, know who he really is?

The C. of E. We’ll carry on walking with Jane down the broad middle path to the good old C of E. The raised pavement narrows and the opposite row, shaped and colored like a wedge of cheddar cheese peters out with the old Star Inn and, with a fine Bath touch – the Tattoo Centre. The steep bank of Hedgemead Park, dotted with daffodils, comes to an abrupt halt by the railings. As the April evening begins to close in, the elegant church front with its thin spire glimmers bone-white in the gloom. There’s something restful about the ordered mahogany pews within, the balance of the square interior. But what’s this? The voice of Jane seems to remain on the outside of the church, by the railings.

The Rev. George Austen’s headstone has only been in its present prominent spot since autumn 2000. With so many pilgrims to the crypt, the Jane Austen Society moved it here, where you can see it from the pavement. He died here in Bath, early in the year 1805. One of his favorite texts is from Isaiah: In stillness and in staying quiet there lies your strength. It has been very sudden! The serenity of the corpse is most delightful. It preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him. With this event like a raw wound is it any wonder that Jane has persisted in a very silent disinclination to like Bath?

But we have found our paragon impossible as it might be for his restless, ironic daughter or any of us, come to that, to live up to.

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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