There’s some­thing about Jane

In thrall to Mr Darcy on the Austen trail in Bath

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - CHRIS­TINE MC­CABE

IT is a uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged truth that there is no Mr Darcy with­out Colin Firth, thanks to the 1995 BBC adap­ta­tion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice, a minis­eries that trans­formed the novel’s haughty hero into a wet breech­esclad sex sym­bol.

This year marks the 200th an­niver­sary of the publi­ca­tion of Austen’s best-loved novel, and if you had any doubt about Firth’s place in the au­thor’s canon, drop by the Gay Street tea rooms of the Jane Austen Cen­tre, off Bath’s Queen Square, where a por­trait of Mr Firth-Darcy smoul­ders po­litely, to­gether with sundry other items bear­ing his hand­some dial.

Sit­ting up­stairs by a win­dow in the cen­tre’s Ge­or­gian town­house, I en­joy a pot of del­i­cate but re­fresh­ing China black ‘‘Jane Austen blend’’ while pe­rus­ing the menu of ‘‘Mr Ben­net’s Rich Tasty Toasties’’ and ‘‘Lady Cather­ine’s Proper Cream Teas’’. For £25 ($37) you can have cham­pagne tea with Mr Darcy. So I do, hoe­ing into dainty cakes and sand­wiches and warm scones served with Dorset clot­ted cream and some lo­cally made jam, while coyly avert­ing my eyes from Mr Firth-Darcy on the wall.

Austen lived in Bath for only five years and even though peo­ple have been vis­it­ing the city for more than two mil­len­nia to wal­low in its hot springs, few have left such an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion.

Two Austen nov­els ( Northanger Abbey and Per­sua­sion) were largely set here and ref­er­ences to the au­thor, and de­pic­tions of a barely dis­guised Firth in Re­gency garb, are ev­ery­where. In Septem­ber, vis­i­tors to the an­nual Jane Austen Fes­ti­val don bon­nets, gloves and Em­pire- line frocks to prom­e­nade around Queen Square be­fore en­joy­ing nine days of read­ings, plays and cos­tumed events.

So I’m sur­prised to learn from Joy, my Blue Badge guide, that Austen didn’t much like Bath. She was a coun­try girl at heart — not for her the hus­tle and bus­tle of town or the petty snob­bery of Bath so­ci­ety and its whirl of tea-soaked danc­ing, card games and gossip.

Even to­day, the city’s stun­ning World Her­itage-listed ar­chi­tec­ture, ren­dered in lu­mi­nous Bath stone and an­chored snugly in a river val­ley on the Avon, at­tracts its fair share of glam­orous res­i­dents — Manolo Blah­nik has a house in Cam­den Cres­cent, Joy tells me — and there’s plenty of old money prop­ping up those gor­geous hon­eyed fa­cades on the fa­mous Cir­cus, John Wood the El­der’s Pal­la­dian mas­ter­piece.

Austen first vis­ited the city in 1797, the same year she com­pleted P&P (ini­tially en­ti­tled First Im­pres­sions and re­jected by pub­lish­ers), stay­ing with her Aunt Leigh-Per­rot at No 1 The Paragon, the main Bath to Lon­don road — a busy thor­ough­fare she found too noisy by half, says Joy. One imag­ines the roar­ing din of whin­ny­ing horses and women nat­ter­ing on street cor­ners.

To­day, the city’s per­fectly pre­served 18th-cen­tury streets and an­cient Ro­man baths are thronged with tourists, some here to take the wa­ters, some look­ing for Mr Darcy, quite a few imag­in­ing, af­ter view­ing the BBC se­ries, tak­ing Mr Darcy in the wa­ters.

I do not share this wicked ob­ser­va­tion with Joy, who sets a brisk pace on this cold but clear Sun­day af­ter­noon as we comb Bath’s cob­bled laneways, fol­low­ing de­murely in Austen’s satin-slip­pered feet. We be­gin at 13 Queen Square, where Austen stayed in 1799, tak­ing rooms on the first floor with her mother and brother Ed­ward Knight and his wife. In a let­ter to her sis­ter, she wrote: ‘‘I have the out­ward and larger apart­ment’’ and made note of the fash­ion for fruit on hats.

The Austen fam­ily moved to 4 Syd­ney Place in 1801, from which Jane loved to stroll through the nearby plea­sure gar­dens. Be­ing a keen walker, she prob­a­bly ven­tured fur­ther afield to Beechen Cliff, fea­tured in Northanger Abbey, and on this chilly day vis­i­ble above town, its ‘‘hang­ing cop­pice’’ a fuzz of bare beech trees.

We stroll by Bath’s old­est pub, the Sara­cens Head, where Charles Dick­ens is thought to have stayed, and drop in to the fa­mous PumpRoom, where a pi­anist plays and where Austen and her brother once sipped on the min­eral-charged wa­ters. In the beau­ti­ful Bath Abbey, I imag­ine her duck­ing in for a spot of quiet con­tem­pla­tion — and re­spite from the con­stant tea drink­ing of the times.

At No 1 Royal Cres­cent, the first house in this rav­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful street de­signed by John Wood the Younger, you will find a de­light­ful mu­seum that gives an ex­cel­lent in­sight into Ge­or­gian life, above and be­low stairs. (The mu­seum will re­open fully in June af­ter a £5 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion.)

Joy says that although Austen and her ‘‘slightly aris­to­cratic’’ mother lived on the fringes of fash­ion­able so­ci­ety, she is known to have kicked up her heels at Bath’s mag­nif­i­cent As­sem­bly Rooms, which to­day house a fash­ion mu­seum. At the fur­thest point on our walking tour, we visit the St Swithin’s church­yard, where Austen’s kindly fa­ther, the Rev­erend Ge­orge, a hand­some Ox­ford don, is buried.

Bath’s town burghers have pre­served the city’s grandeur with aplomb — down­town is lit­tle changed since Austen’s day — but there’s am­ple shop­ping at hand with lots of high street brands, as well as stylish bou­tiques and stores spe­cial­is­ing in the best of Bri­tish. Check out Prince Charles’s High­grove Shop in fash­ion­able Mil­som Street.

Some of the city’s best food is to be found at the new Al­lium Brasserie on North Pa­rade, where highly re­garded chef Chris Staines is at the helm (try the miso-cured Loch Duart salmon). The city also hosts a busy year-round cal­en­dar of events, as I dis­cover when dis­em­bark­ing from my train in the mid­dle of the Bath marathon.

What Austen and in­deed Lady Cather­ine de Bourgh would have made of the puff­ing, scant­ily clad run­ners clog­ging Queen Square, and what scan­dal would have at­tached to their at­tire, I dare not spec­u­late. Smelling salts and sweet China black all round, I’d say. Fol­lowed by a good lie-down. Chris­tine Mc­Cabe was a guest of Ac­cor’s MGallery ho­tels and Visit Bri­tain.

main pic­ture

be­low

His­toric Bath, on the banks of the River Avon, was home to Jane Austen for five years

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