History: Jane Austen in Bath

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By Claire Wang

"Well, girls, it is all settled, we have decided to leave Steventon in such a week and go to Bath."
Jane Austen's mother to her daughters Jane and Cassandra

Family lore holds that Jane Austen learned of her parents’ decision to leave their home and move to Bath with this abrupt announcement. Since Jane Austen set two of her novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) in the city, and remains one of Bath’s most famous residents, modern-day readers might assume that she received this news in a favorable light. However, multiple sources suggest that she fainted.

Roman BathsJane’s father, George Austen, an Oxford-educated clergyman, had been rector in several country parishes, including Steventon, which had been the Austen family home for more than thirty years. In 1800, he announced his plan to retire, and leave both the Steventon home and accompanying parish to his son James and his daughter-in-law Mary. George, his wife, and unmarried daughters Jane and Cassandra, would relocate to a rented house in Bath.

Jane was devastated. Regardless of whether she fainted, her parents’ abrupt decision thrust her into circumstances over which she had no influence or input. These plans not only required leaving the only home she had ever known, but also parting with many treasured family possessions; Austen biographer Claire Tomalin writes that these items included "her father’s library of 500 volumes, which he intended to sell, along with most of the furniture, the piano on which Jane had learnt, practiced and played over the years, and ‘a large collection of music.’" In addition to the physical loss, Jane also endured the emotional impact of "watching the breaking up of everything familiar and seeing what was left eagerly taken over."

As for Bath itself, Tomalin writes that "[Jane] had enjoyed [the city] as a visitor and used it as a writer, but she had no wish at all to live there." The main attraction at Bath—a small city located about one hundred and twenty miles west of London—and the impetus behind the Austens’ decision to retire there, is its natural hot springs, which has enticed visitors since prehistoric times. According to legend, King Bladud, Trojan refugee and the father of King Lear, first took note of the area's healing properties about 3000 years ago when a jaunt through the muddy swamps cured his pigs of leprosy. Lonely Planet England reports that the Romans established the town of Aquae Sulis in AD 44, along with the existing bath complex. Over the next several centuries, "Roman patricians would gather to immerse themselves, drink the mineral waters, and socialize."

After the Romans left the area, the spas were abandoned until the late 18th century when bathing became in vogue. During this period, residents constructed the existing Georgian building and the Pump Room, which was built next to the Roman Baths between 1792 and 1796 as "a rendezvous for members of the 18th-century and 19th-century Bath society." It was in this expansive setting where Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Moreland and Mrs. Allen "paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one."

Pump Room Mineral Water Fountain Today, the space in the Pump Room isn’t exactly conducive to parading up and down, as it serves as a place to entertain visitors with tea and live music. And for 50p (roughly equivalent to $1 US) you may take a sample of the allegedly restorative mineral water, which Fodor’s England describes as "fairly vile." Charles Dickens, who tried the mineral water during his visit to Bath, included a more colorful description--"a very strong flavour o' warm flat irons"--in The Pickwick Papers. Contemporary visitors compare the taste to "blood" or "old pennies," though others claim that the flavor wasn’t as offensive as they thought it would be. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I tried it during my visit in 2005, but the pungent, sulfurous steam rising from the Roman Baths themselves ought to have tipped me off. (Imagine drinking hot sea water that had boiled in a rusty can.)

Bath’s official tourism website offers a more modest assessment of the water—"it has a rather unusual taste." Most visitors, however, are content to glimpse the water in the Roman Baths—the "best-preserved ancient Roman spas in the world"—at a comfortable distance, and admire the Georgian architecture, which consists of pale buff-colored local stones that often give off the same "white glare" that Anne Elliot experienced in Persuasion.

The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion.
—Jane Austen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra

Another Austen biographer, Valerie Grosvenor Myer, notes that when the Austens arrived in Bath in 1801, "[they] had great difficulty in finding a comfortable place to live" as "the fashionable streets such as the Royal Crescent and the Circus were well beyond their means." Although the family eventually found a suitable house to rent, Jane herself "was soon bored and irritable" with the town. Even the task of having gowns made for dances in the Upper Rooms held little appeal.

There was more to Jane’s gloomy frame of mind than mere melancholy over the move. The Austen family had arrived in Bath when the city was undergoing a dramatic shift in the social dynamic: "The public assemblies which Jane had attended as a girl, which Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey enjoyed, were no longer smart places to see and be seen." By 1801, Brighton had supplanted Bath as the destination of choice among the smart set, and the majority of those who remained in Bath consisted of the elderly and infirm. Adding to the ignominy of Jane’s circumstances was the fact that Bath "was not only an old people’s pleasure ground but also a place for husband-hunting." Claire Tomalin writes that Jane and Cassandra, who were both unmarried, must have "[felt] a stinging sense of humiliation at any idea of being paraded in the marriage market."

Jane never wallowed or outwardly indulged in her misery; her letters conveyed a sense of duty, and "much keeping up of spirits" during this period. Despite all appearances to the contrary, however, her depression was severe enough to have had an impact on her literary productivity. In the years leading up to the Austen family's departure from Steventon, Jane had written three novels. Although her years in Bath undoubtedly provided a store of experiences and observations to use in future writings, she was unable to sustain her previous momentum and did not produce any published work during this period.

Shortly after George Austen's death in 1805, his widow and daughters left Bath and shared Jane's brother's home in Southampton. In 1809, they moved to a quiet cottage in Chawton village, which became Jane's home for the next eight years, until her death in 1817. At Chawton, she regained a sense of peace and productivity as a writer—in addition to resuming her work on Sense and Sensibility, she penned Mansfield Park, and also began revising an earlier work called First Impressions. This novel, which would become Austen’s most famous work, was published under the title of Pride and Prejudice 200 years ago, on January 28, 1813.

For more about the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, Fodor's Travel Blog has a suggested travel itinerary. Check out the Pratt Library catalog for Jane Austen's other works and biographies.

Great post, Claire! I have actually been to Bath (back in 1989), and reading your post transported me right back there!
Posted by: Tom Warner at 2/14/2013 12:32 p.m.

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