Jane Austen’s Bath
200 Years After Jane Austen’s Death, Soak Up the Period Atmosphere in the Georgian City She Made Famous
“’For six weeks, I allow Bath is pleasant enough; but beyond that, it is the most tiresome place in the world.’ You would be told so by people of all descriptions, who come regularly every winter, lengthen their six weeks into ten or twelve, and go away at last because they can afford to stay no longer.”
So Mr. Tilney wryly remarks to newly arrived country mouse Catherine Morland, Jane Austen’s young heroine in Northanger Abbey. Austen visited Bath in the late 1700s and lived here from 1801 and 1806, and she set much of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in this Georgian city 100 miles west of London.
Although this year marks 200 years since the author’s death, her descriptions of Bath at the dawn of the 19th century retain the acerbic sting of Austen’s wicked wit.
But with the passing centuries, Bath seems to have forgiven its adopted daughter for her droll jibes. In addition to establishing the Jane Austen Centre, Bath holds two annual events in her honour: the Jane Austen Festival Regency Costumed Summer Ball, and the Jane Austen Festival in September, which holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for gathering the most people in Regency dress (since the early 1800s, one would assume). This year, you can also participate in a bicentennial Grand Regency Ball, to be held September 16, 2017 in the Assembly Rooms, where Austen herself would have kicked up her heels back in the day.
However ambivalent Austen’s feelings were about Bath, it’s easy to see what makes it such a favourite among her fans. The streets are lined with beautifully preserved buildings made of honey-coloured stone, many virtually unchanged since her day. Crowds still descend upon the Pump Room for afternoon tea, and Milsom Street remains a hotspot for shoppers, though it’s unlikely Austen ever popped into The Gap.
The Assembly Rooms, where Austen would have attended dances, are as grand as they were then, and the Fashion Museum — housed within the same building — features displays of period clothing, including white muslin frocks such as the author would have worn. The Sydney Hotel, where Jane Austen used to come to dine and take a turn through the gardens, is now the Holburne Museum, but it still houses a restaurant and maintains its grand Georgian facade.
“Because of the way the city has retained its buildings, people can literally walk in the footsteps of Jane Austen—shopping and going for tea and to balls—and look at the views she would have seen 200 years ago,” notes Austin expert David Lassman, who has contributed articles about the author to the BBC’s History Extra website.
But if Bath’s streets are much the same, the people populating them are not, says Margaret Tibbs, who leads a Jane Austen walking tour.
In the 18th century, Bath had become a fashionable place to “take the waters”—the reputedly therapeutic hot springs which burble up in the center of town. “But the baths became something of an excuse to holiday here,” Tibbs explains, “and there was all sorts going on, from balls to gambling. It drew the wealthy, but also beggars, prostitutes, and thieves.”
“Jane didn’t like the people, who were shallow and insincere, concerned with their status in life,” Tibbs continues. When Austen’s parents announced that they planned to move the family to Bath, “She was so upset, she passed out,” my guide notes.
Tibbs is full of these insider tidbits and an expert on Austen-related locations. She shows us where Austen stayed with her brother for six weeks on Queen Square, points out the shop where Austen’s aunt was accused of stealing lace, takes us along the gravel path where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth strolled at the end of Persuasion, and leads us to 25 Gay Street, where Austen lived for a time. “Now it’s a dentist’s office,” she says. “We couldn’t ‘extract’ them.”
It’s just the sort of quip Austen would appreciate. And perhaps it’s that keen sense of humour, as much as Austen’s poignant observations of human nature and romance, that make her novels as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.
ARRIVING: From London Paddington train station, it’s about a 90-minute train ride to Bath Spa; www.nationalrail.co.uk.
DINING: The Pump Room. Jane Austen came here to drink the waters, infused with 43 minerals including sulphate, calcium and iron, and visitors can still sample them today from a fountain. The elegant dining room serves breakfast, lunch and tea.
Sally Lunn’s. Located in one of Bath’s oldest homes, this historic restaurant has got the Bath buns, hon. Top your gluttonous cushion with scrambled eggs, cinnamon butter and clotted cream, roast beef, brie or dozens of other options.
Wild Coffee Café. Located near Trim Street, the last of the lanes where Jane Austen lived before moving to Chawton, this artsy café offers all-day brunch, as well as fish and chips, falafel burgers, and decadent desserts.
SLEEPING: The Gainsborough Bath Spa. Situated within two historic 18th century buildings, this 99-room oasis encompasses a 14,000-square-foot spa and two pools fed by the mineral-rich Hetling Spring.
The Queensberry Hotel. Close to the Jane Austen Centre, this boutique hotel features sleek, modern décor, a restaurant and a stylish bar.
Francis Hotel. This hotel, adjacent to the 18th century townhouse where Jane Austen spent six weeks with her brother Edward, offers an updated, whimsical take on Regency décor.
DOING: Jane Austen Centre. Costumed guides discuss Bath’s history and its connection to the author and her family. A waxwork sculpture of Austen, created with the assistance of an internationally-renowned sculptor, an FBI-trained forensic artist and a Bafta and Emmy award-winning costume designer, presides over it all. The Georgian townhouse houses both the museum and a Regency tearoom. The centre can also arrange walking tours of Jane Austen’s Bath.
Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum. An intriguing collection of historic garments is displayed beneath the elegant Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen used to dance. Discounts available when you buy a combined ticket for the Roman Baths.
The Roman Baths. Though the Roman Baths were not open in Jane Austen’s day, they’re well worth a look. The museum is filled with ancient artifacts, and the central bath, a steaming green pool surrounded by columns, is striking.
Jane Austen’s House Museum: This home in Hampshire, where Austen spent most of her last eight years, contains her letters, music books, writing table, jewelry and various family items and furniture.
Pride and Prejudice Tour of Locations: BritMovieTours offers four-day tours of Austen-related locations around the UK, including Bath and London.
The Jane Austen Society (JASNA) also offers a wealth of information about Austen and other Austen-linked sites.