A warm Bath with Jane Austen
‘ “And are you altogether pleased with Bath?”
“Yes; I like it very well.” ‘ (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)
If I have been rather quiet here for the past week or so, it is because the boys have been on their half-term holiday. Their half-terms have not coincided for three years, so we took the chance to go away. For the first time in many years, we paid a visit to friends and family in Somerset, and then spent a couple of days introducing the children to the city of Bath.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit. It was the Roman baths that intrigued the boys, naturally enough; but they were also taken by the splendours of the abbey, the interesting little streets and shops, the grandeur of the Georgian architecture and even – to my happy surprise – by the Jane Austen Centre, to which I dragged them on our final morning.
It is Jane Austen, of course, whose descriptions of the city and its inhabitants are most celebrated. Upon re-reading her two novels set in Bath, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, I realise that the essentials – the architecture, the abbey and the baths, the high quality of the shops and of course the climate – are unchanged from her descriptions at the end of the eighteenth century. And I am reminded that I am far from the first country girl to be bewitched by Bath.
‘They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.’ (Northanger Abbey, ch2)
That is very much how I felt, returning to a city which I last visited almost twenty years ago. While Bath may no longer be the centre of fashionable society that it was in the eighteenth century, it is still attracting visitors from all over the world. The crush of carriages has been replaced by bendy buses, the sprigged muslin frocks and cravats by jeans and backpacks, but still we come to enjoy the beauty and history offered by this city of Celts, Romans and Regency dandies. Catherine Morland, gauche young heroine of Northanger Abbey (and my favourite Austen heroine at the time of my last visit) speaks for me again in comparing the quiet contentment of her country life to the inspiration to be found in town:
‘ “Other people must judge for themselves, and those who go to London may think nothing of Bath. But I, who live in a small retired village in the country, can never find greater sameness in such a place as this than in my own home; for here are a variety of amusements, a variety of things to be seen and done all day long, which I can know nothing of there.” ‘
What makes Bath really special is, naturally, the Baths: that is, the complex of temples and bath houses built by the Romans on the site of a hot spring. It is quite hair-prickling to think that these hot mineral waters have been bubbling up from deep in the earth since time immemorial. The Roman baths have been built upon, reduced, altered and excavated on and off for two thousand years: yet the main bath remains, a pillared colonnade surrounding an open pool in the centre of the city, more or less just as it was when the city was called Aquae Sulis after the hot springs dedicated to the Celtic god Sulis with the Roman goddess Minerva. The water is the opaque green of sand-washed Roman glass. I have seen it, in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, sending clouds of steam above the walls of the baths to mingle with the frosty city air, just as the Romans might have noticed it.
It was the hot spring which made Bath famous. Bathing in the mineral-rich waters was believed to be good for the health, as was drinking them. While you may not swim in the baths these days, you can still taste the spring waters, either at the end of your tour of the Baths or in the Pump Room, where the water is pumped up to a fountain for the benefit of Georgian health-seekers. We tasted, of course, and the water is just as disgusting as I remembered: warm, salty and smelly. My younger son now proudly sports a badge saying ‘I drink Bath water’.
To be so close to history – to walk the same flagstones and taste from the same spring as those who lived here only a few years after the time of Christ, when St. Paul was busy spreading the Gospel at the other end of the Roman Empire – is a powerful experience. For me, however, the soul of Bath is Georgian, and the muse of Bath will always be Jane Austen. I am not an Austen fanatic, but I do greatly enjoy her wit, her joie de vivre and her acute insight. Persuasion, her last and most serious book, is my favourite now, much as I still enjoy the high spirits of Northanger Abbey (to say nothing of the irresistible Pride and Prejudice). I took a copy of Persuasion with me on our trip, knowing that to be immersed in Austen’s world would make a visit to Bath extra special. And for all her ambivalence about life in the city (Anne Elliott, the heroine, would far rather be at home in the country) it did give a frisson to be reading about the very streets one was walking.
Beautiful Queen Square, for example, (which reminded me very much of the slightly later Charlotte Square in Edinburgh) was one of the first places Jane Austen lived in Bath. It had become rather outmoded by the time she was writing Persuasion, hence its dismissal by the young Musgrove sisters. (An excellent account of the development of the square and of its connections to Jane can be found at Austenonly.com.)
We also experienced the same weather as in the book! The south-west of England has a comparatively mild and wet climate. It was actually peculiarly warm during our October visit; too hot, indeed, for us Scots. And it was also very wet: every time we thought the downpours had almost stopped, it would begin to drizzle again.
‘They were in Milsom Street. It began to rain, not much, but enough to make shelter desirable for women.’ (Persuasion, ch. 19) Yes: just the same for us. Luckily, like Captain Wentworth, we came prepared. ‘ “Though I came only yesterday, I have equipped myself properly for Bath already, you see,” (pointing to a new umbrella)”. ‘ (Capt. Wentworth to Anne Elliott, Persuasion, ch.19)
The rain didn’t matter however: we still loved Bath. On returning to school this morning, my younger son wrote four pages on ‘what I did at half-term’ and has still not finished. Nor have I: there is so much more one could tell of the city, which has inspired me as it has inspired visitors for centuries. As Tilney points out with amusement to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, ‘When you sink into [the tedium of country life] again, you will have more to say. You will be able to talk of Bath, and of all that you did here.” ‘
‘ “Oh! yes; I shall never be in want of something to talk of again…I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am at home again; I do like it so very much. …Oh! who can ever be tired of Bath?” ‘
For more tales of country mice visiting historic cities, you might enjoy Saturday night and Sunday morning: a glimpse of Edinburgh and An introduction to York.