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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