In Her Shoes
Tour Bath and beyond in the footsteps of Jane Austen.
The great Jane Austen took tea in this room. It’s a wonderful, if a little unnerving, thought as I drift off to sleep in a Regency-era limestone terrace in Sydney Place, Bath. Her home between 1801 and 1804, Jane Austen’s Apartments now caters for Austenphiles on a pilgrimage to discover more about the elusive novelist, her characters and her settings. And plenty will want to visit this year, the bicentenary of her death.
On the ground floor, my apartment was the family’s parlour and dining room when Austen’s father retired as a country clergyman and uprooted the family from Steventon in Hampshire to the city. But Austen had a love-hate relationship with Bath. My walking guide, Andrew Butterworth, reveals she reputedly had a fainting fit when she learnt of the move. “Bath was losing its kudos as a resort for movers and shakers, and becoming a retirement town,” he explains. “In her five years here, she hardly wrote a thing. She was disabled as a writer by being here and was not in the right state of mind.”
However, Bath offered fertile material for her later novels, even providing the plots for Persuasion and
Northanger Abbey. After all, its society offered a ready target. “She disliked its snobbery, which she was so good at ridiculing. She pricks that pomposity,” says Andrew.
The Jane Austen Centre, Bath
Tourists flocking to The Jane Austen Centre in Gay Street are ushered in by a jolly gentleman in 18th-century regalia and given a glimpse into the writer’s time in the town. She didn’t live here, but the Georgian townhouse certainly evokes the era and the woman. The addition of a waxwork of Austen herself – constructed with the help of forensic artist Melissa Dring, who trawled through myriad diaries and letters – is a rare insight into how she looked; the only original portrait of her was a sober drawing by her sister, Cassandra. The 170cm-tall waxwork sports curly brown hair, a long nose, brown eyes and a mischievous look that captures Austen’s sense of adventure.
The Pump Room Restaurant, Bath
At the elegant Pump Room Restaurant, attached to the Roman Baths, I take tea with all the trimmings: delicate china, a cake stand brimming with cucumber sandwiches and fine cakes, and a string trio in the background. But it was different in Austen’s time. “They came to the Pump Room as a social occasion,” says Andrew. “They just promenaded around the room with friends, drinking the water – they didn’t sit down for tea.” Despite conversation being its only attraction, the Pump Room was the hottest place to be in Austen’s Bath. Royal Crescent, Bath “After staying long enough in the Pump Room to discover that the crowd was insupportable … they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company.” And, says Andrew, Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Isabella would have walked up the hill, along the elegant Gravel Walk, to get there. The famous Royal Crescent, the first crescent built in England, consists of 30 stately Georgian terraces in honey-hued stone. It features in the final scenes of the TV adaptation of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth finally kiss.