There’s something about Jane
In thrall to Mr Darcy on the Austen trail in Bath
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.
Historic Bath, on the banks of the River Avon, was home to Jane Austen for five years