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A warm Bath with Jane Austen

October 28, 2013

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‘ “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.

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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 The crush of carriages has been replaced by bendy buses, the sprigged muslin frocks and cravats by jeans and backpacks, but still we come to enjoy the beauty and history offered by this city of Celts,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.” ‘

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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.

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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.

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‘None of your Queen Squares for us!’ cry the Musgrove girls in ‘Persuasion’.

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?” ‘

Royal Crescent

Royal Circus

Pulteney Bridge

Pulteney Bridge

flags and a friendly pub

flags and a friendly pub

Bath Abbey, seen across the chimney pots from our apartment window

Bath Abbey, seen across the chimney pots from our apartment window

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.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 8:37 pm

    Oh, Bath. To those who look with eyes full of history and literature – you can see it all just as it was. This was the first “European” abbey my daughter had seen – it’s an especially nice one to start with. The little streets, the signs, the bridge. Sigh. Thanks for sharing your visit, pictures – and the literature connections. …We’ll always have Bath…

    • October 29, 2013 6:36 pm

      What a lovely introduction to European church history and architecture! I think I might devote another post to the beautiful abbey. I’m glad to remind you of it through my own visit. Such a lovely city.

  2. Caroline permalink
    October 28, 2013 9:33 pm

    So you came to my town! Lovely to read your enthusiasm, and to be reminded that I am lucky to live in such an architectural delight of a town. I have lived here for over thirty years now, and still get fascinated by its architectural history, and hidden corners. You put it so well about the historical wonder of walking the ancient flagstones ….. and with the backpackers and mobile phone cameras………Yet I long for wilderness places… actually there is beautiful country around Bath……..

    • October 29, 2013 6:39 pm

      Ah, I didn’t know you were in Bath! Lucky you. The countryside is beautiful too, as you say: in fact I think that Somerset is one of my favourite parts of England. So much history and romance and mysticism, not to mention good farmland and wonderful cider! The friends and family we visited in rural Somerset all had apple trees in their gardens, heavy with ripe fruit. I hope the apple harvest won’t suffer too much from yesterday’s gale.

  3. October 28, 2013 9:43 pm

    What an enjoyable read! I only spent part of a day in Bath in 1997. Back in 1958, my brother fell into that big bath, though. My dad took his photo as he was coming out.

    • October 29, 2013 6:40 pm

      Hah, what a great story! I wonder how many other people have managed to fall in over the years!

  4. boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
    October 29, 2013 1:00 am

    i do envy you bath. it seems such an exquisite place. it’s like someone put together a model of a city with great care and love. for me it is Persuasion of the two you mention and in particular a movie of it made probably in the 1990s. can’t remember the names of the actors but they were so totally suited to the story it was wonderful. it was put together like Bath itself i think. when i feel really down about things and stress i watch it and calm returns. thank you for your personal visit

    • October 29, 2013 6:45 pm

      It’s a pleasure to share a little of Bath. And how interesting to learn that you calm down with ‘Persuasion’. My husband and I do the same with the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’: we first re-watched it on 9/11, as an escape from the horror, and now we watch it every September or whenever the modern world is too grim. But you know, we watched ‘Persuasion’ again when we came home from Bath, and I love it almost as much as P&P. The movie you are probably thinking of is the same one that we love: it was made in 1995 and stars Amanda Root as Anne and the splendid Ciaran Hinds as delicious Captain Wentworth. (Can you tell that I’m a fan?!)

      • Caroline permalink
        October 29, 2013 11:46 pm

        My son and I were extras in that film! Yes, I too became a fan of Ciaran Hinds !! Must dig it out and watch again….

        Dancing Beastie writes: How exciting! Please tell me which scene/s you were in, and I shall look out for you. I watched it AGAIN last night while my husband was out – he came home just in time to find me melting into the arms of Capt. Wentworth sofa in the final scenes.

      • boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
        November 5, 2013 7:36 pm

        yes that is the one. i have seen Amanda in several things since and she is equally good. ithought Ciaran totally the right casting too. i’m afraid he has fallen on hard times. he took a part in an American series of a woman who runs for President. he is a debauched ex-president separated from her. he does debauched very well and raises the level of the whole show. ;however. he is as craggy faced as the Capital in Persuasion. your actors are so versatile and so available. they do TV and movies and voice overs. their training must be superb

  5. Erika W. permalink
    October 29, 2013 2:18 pm

    Now I am remembering when I took my two American-raised children to Bath in 1975, the year after my first husband’s death. It was during a visit to England to see grandparents and we were all a little crushed by the sad event of the year before. Bath was somehow a “turning around” point and for a long time afterwards my 10 and 12 year old talked about it and described it to friends. The peak of pleasure was standing in the middle of The Circus and clapping their hands to hear the echo coming back to them from around the houses.

    I had not thought of Bath and children but now mention it as a place to visit for any family I know headed for a British holiday.

    • October 29, 2013 6:47 pm

      What a bittersweet memory for you. I am glad that Bath brought a turning point in the grief of you and your children: it is poignant even to read about it.
      We shall have to return, if only in order to try clapping our hands in the middle of the Circus!

  6. October 30, 2013 12:11 pm

    I’ve never been to Bath, so I really enjoyed your post! I have ‘seen’ it through Jane Austen’s eyes, though, and I’m glad that it still holds some of the charm in her books. I’m sure I would love browsing through the lovely old-fashioned shops and streets!

    • November 2, 2013 12:00 pm

      Oh, I’m sure you would adore it, Jo. The streets and shops are delicious. We also found everyone very welcoming, from the rather grand establishments on Milsom Street (such as the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove shop, where the sales assistant couldn’t have been more sweet with my boys) to the tucked away, like the splendidly named bookshop, Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

      • November 2, 2013 12:58 pm

        Milsom Street rings a bell somewhere! And that bookshop sounds so tempting! Perhaps it’s a good job it’s a long way away!

      • Caroline permalink
        November 21, 2013 12:32 am

        Sorry me again. Delighted that you found Mr B’s Emporium of Delights. A wonderful bookshop. Did you go upstairs and go into the old record booth, where you can read a book and listen to music? Also my eldest son’s ‘band’ began there. They are a regular feature on book launch nights, as they write songs about books – This year they have been touring – even got as far as Edinburgh…..

        Dancing Beastie writes:
        Not at all, Caroline, thank you for your contributions about your lovely city. Sadly we didn’t have more than a few minutes in the bookshop: my other half was sitting fuming outside, waiting to get on to our next appointment…! We shall just have to go back. 🙂
        The mixture of music and reading sounds inspired. How splendid that your son’s band began there and has gone on so successfully. They must deserve their success if they write about books!

  7. October 31, 2013 9:18 pm

    Thanks for taking us with you through the streets of Bath, DB. I’ve only had one very brief visit to Bath many years ago and would love to go again, but like you feel I know it in any case through the pages of Jane Austin’s novels and also those of Georgette Heyer. I’ve just had great fun downloading copies of all Jane’s novels to my new e-book reader. 🙂

    • November 2, 2013 12:03 pm

      You have inspired me to download one or two more onto my iPad! I haven’t read any G. Heyer for years. My mother-in-law collected a full set, however, and I have an otherwise very high-brow brother-in-law who swoons with delight at all those Regency romances!

      • November 2, 2013 1:01 pm

        I was first introduced to Georgette Heyer by friends at Oxford and DH is as big a fan as I am, as is DD, who finds her books a wonderful way to relax after a day working as a solicitor. 🙂

  8. Caroline permalink
    November 21, 2013 12:20 am

    Hello Dancing Beastie, You asked me which scenes in Persuasion I was in. Here goes
    First Pump Room scene, wearing a russett coloured jacket and white dress, black hat with feather, pass behind Lady Russell as she says ….’blood connections’….
    In scene outside Assembly rooms before the concert, I pass behind Anne as she looks for Captain Wentworth, wearing lilac cloak. I was in the smoky concert scene and entrance hall, but dont remember where, or dont recognize me…
    2nd pump room scene, wearing same as scene 1 , this time recieve a glass of the pump room water as she and Lady Russell talk.
    My son and I were in the reconciliation scene with circus, he wears turquiosy green trousers ( apparently back to front, we realized later) and runs across the scene a couple of times.
    There was another, where two of us had been particularly chosen. Moment of stardom I thought. But …..we were to walk in Sydney gardens below the window of the Bennetts’ abode. As ‘it always rains in Bath’ we sheltered under an umbrella for our perambulation of the park. I think this scene was cut. You would have only seen an umbrella and possibly two pairs of feet, all through the distorted rain smeared view of an upper window!
    As a point of interest – the drapery in their Bath dinning room was all painted. Interesting watching it again after all these years.

    • November 24, 2013 12:22 am

      Oh, wonderful, thank you so much! I am going to have a lovely time watching it all again with the pause button at the ready. Filming is a funny business and I know there is an interminable amount of waiting around involved, but it must have been fun all the same?!

      I noticed that the drapery was painted: I imagine it was deliberately ‘trompe l’oeil’, as I believe might have been the fashion of the period. It reminded me of similar classical painted draperies in a room excavated at Pompeii.

      • Caroline permalink
        November 24, 2013 9:16 pm

        yes, fun and lots of waiting around. I decided to use those waiting spaces to learn some poetry! sometimes there seemed more film crew than actors, including that lovely intimate moment of reconcilliation between Anne and Captain Wentworth. One of my memories is how dishy all men were in their costumes, and what a bump to earth it was to then see them in anoraks and trainers afterwards……
        yes the ‘trompe l’oeil’ was specially done, rest of house was a builders yard!

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