Catherine Pitt traces Jane Austen’s associations with Bath to mark the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s death
July 2017 sees the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. It’s hard to avoid Austen in Bath, from bookshops to local gin, tea rooms and festivals, she’s referenced frequently. There is some thought that she disliked her time in Bath, yet from early letters to her sister Cassandra it appears that some things in the city did impress her. She wrote in 1799 that the fireworks in Sydney Gardens “were really beautiful and surpassing my expectation; the illuminations too, were very pretty.”
Certainly the fact that what she experienced and witnessed in Bath she used in the setting of two of her books – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – implies that even if she didn’t enjoy everything Bath had to offer she definitely experienced a lot during her time here.
Jane’s family had strong links to the city. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was originally from Bath and Reverend Austen moved here from Oxford after meeting his wife to be. Bath is also where they married at St Swithun’s Church on Walcot Street in 1764.
Mrs Austen’s sister lived in the city on the Paragon and was visited by the family in 1799 when Jane’s brother Edward headed to Bath to take “the cure” with his mother and Jane in tow. In settling in to their temporary accommodation in Queen Square, it seems that Jane was complimentary of her accommodation, detailing in a letter to Cassandra that they were “exceedingly pleased with the house; the rooms are quite as large as we expected.”
Ball at the Upper Assembly by Thomas Rowlandon, around 1798, Victoria Art Gallery / BANES Council
The modern assumption that Jane disliked the city has probably been the result of a number of combining factors. Firstly, moving permanently from the rural idyll of Steventon in Hampshire, Bath must have been a cosmopolitan culture shock to her; she could have well been homesick. Suddenly thrust into the social whirl of fashion, events and shopping that the rich people’s playground of Bath provided, this must have been some change.
It was her father’s decision to retire here in 1801 and Jane, as an unmarried daughter, had no say in the matter. Therefore she could well have been harbouring some bitterness towards this enforced move.
However, Jane appears to have made the most of her time in the city though, as from her letters and the experiences she writes of in her novels, we can glean that she attended the Pump Room, balls and other events as was the custom for a resident or visitor of Bath.
Though by no means poor before her father’s death, the Austen family were certainly not in the high echelons of society when they lived in the city, and the snobbishness may have repelled the author somewhat. She certainly seems to tire of the frivolities, expressing in a letter dated 12 May 1801 that she attended “another stupid party last night” – though it could be argued that Jane’s comment says more about her personal preferences than a dislike of Bath itself.
The fireworks in Sydney Gardens “were really beautiful and surpassing my expectation; the illuminations too, were very pretty…”
In the 1800s Bath had a number of circulating libraries, which was a popular idea at the time as the public could borrow books, novels and pamphlets. Books were expensive commodities to own at the close of the 18th century and start of the 19th century. For a small fee members of the public could borrow items for a set duration, and this surely would have appealed to avid reader Jane.
Walking around the city she would have been familiar with the libraries such as Marshall’s on Milsom Street and Mr Barrett’s on Bond Street, which were operating in the early 1800s. Perhaps these were some small comfort to her during her stay here.
The death of her beloved father in 1805 would have certainly tainted Jane’s view of the city forever for it would always have that association. The death of Reverend Austen left his widow, and his daughters, Jane and Cassandra, as unmarried women, in reduced financial circumstances which led to them having to climb down a rung or two on the housing ladder much to Mrs Austen’s, and probably her daughters’, chagrin.
When first arriving in the city, Mrs Austen was determined to “do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street” (mentioned in a letter from Jane to Cassandra, 1801), but alas by 1806 we find her and her daughters residing in said dreaded street, before they left Bath for good in the summer of 1806.
Whatever Jane thought of Bath, the city certainly celebrates her immortalisation of it in her novels.
If you wish to walk in the footsteps of Jane and her family and would like to decide for yourself how Jane may have viewed Bath, then here are a few key sites to explore:
The Assembly Rooms – Known as the Upper Rooms in Jane’s time in the city, she attended a number of balls and tea dances here.
- Sydney Gardens – The only remaining 18th century pleasure gardens in the country, and where Jane enjoyed breakfasts, concerts, fireworks and illuminations. She lived with her sister and mother nearby at number 4 Sydney Terrace.
- Old Orchard Street Theatre – The original Theatre Royal opened in 1750 and closed in 1805 when the new Saw Close theatre opened. Jane would have come here to see performances and when she refers to the theatre in Bath in her works, this is where she would have been writing about.
- Number 1, The Paragon – It was here that Jane’s aunt and uncle, the Leigh-Perrotts lived, and where she initially stayed when they first moved to Bath in 1801.
- Crescent Fields, today part of the Royal Crescent and Royal Victoria Park – Jane writes about walking along the Crescent fields that lay below the Royal Crescent, which were landscaped into Victoria Park in 1830.
- The Pump Room – The current Pump Room was completed in 1799 so for Jane this would have been a new building to enjoy. Her brother, Edward, would have visited here to partake of the waters, and possibly Jane would have as well.
- St Swithun’s Church – Here, in the only surviving 18th century church in Bath, is where Jane’s parents were married in 1764, and where her father was buried in 1805. Reverend Austen’s gravestone lies in the churchyard near the Paragon side of the road.
- Queen Square – Number 13 on the corner of Queen Square and Prince’s Street is where Jane, her brother Edward, and her mother stayed in 1799.
- Gay Street – Number 25 is now a dental practice, but in 1805 it was the first move that Mrs Austen and her daughters made after the death of Reverend Austen. It would have been a busy thoroughfare between the upper and lower town.
- Trim Street – This was the Austen family’s final location before their move from the city in 1806. Trim Street was one of the earliest streets built in what was considered to be the new city of Bath, but by the early 19th century it was considered an insalubrious location. The narrowness of the street remains unchanged from Jane’s time here.