A Bath full of Austen’s life, 200 years af­ter her death

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY SIOBHAN STARRS

Shortly af­ter our late-af­ter­noon ar­rival in Bath, we took a prom­e­nade along its sto­ried gravel walk, the same one where Anne El­liot and Cap­tain Fred­er­ick Went­worth found them­selves “exquisitely happy” at the end of Jane Austen’s “Per­sua­sion.”

This year marks the bi­cen­ten­nial of Austen’s death, and our party of four had come to Bath to fol­low in the foot­steps of one of Bri­tain’s most beloved nov­el­ists, who lived here from 1800 to 1806. Some of the special events planned in­clude a Jane Austen Sum­mer Ball in July (Re­gency dress is re­quested) and the 10-day Jane Austen Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, which will fea­ture more than 80 events.

Our stroll took us to that fine Pal­la­dian ter­race, the Royal Cres­cent. I wish I could re­port that the golden sand­stone of the build­ings glowed in the late af­ter­noon sun, but it was a rather mis­er­able Fe­bru­ary day and we had not walked very far be­fore the door­man of No. 1 Royal Cres­cent, a house mu­seum fur­nished as it might have been dur­ing the late 18th cen­tury, in­vited us in.

This circa-1774 grand abode was the first Royal Cres­cent house to be com­pleted, and in 2006 it was re­stored to the splen­dor of its Ge­or­gian hey­day, when it was oc­cu­pied by a high-so­ci­ety fam­ily. To­day, it wel­comes vis­i­tors from all over the globe to see the world

in which Austen resided.

Fam­ily and writ­ing were at its cen­ter, and af­ter her fa­ther re­tired, she moved to Bath with her par­ents and sis­ter.

No. 1 Royal Cres­cent is fur­nished with all the fash­ion­able ac­cou­trements of the era: a globe and tele­scope in the gentle­man’s re­treat; a col­lec­tion of cu­riosi­ties in the hall­way; a fine din­ing room (a novel ad­di­tion to a home in Ge­or­gian times); and por­traits and botan­i­cal draw­ings. One mod­ern con­ve­nience that the house did not pos­sess how­ever, was a bath­room, though a com­mode was dis­cretely stored in a cup­board in each room. The door­man, David Syming­ton, in­formed me that so­ci­ety came to Bath for the win­ter sea­son, re­turn­ing to their coun­try houses in the sum­mer, when the stench of the sew­ers be­came too much to bear. Be­low stairs, the kitchen and scullery boasted spices from around the world and some cos­tumes that al­lowed my daugh­ter Kitty to in­dulge her love of dress­ing up.

Soon, it was time to re­tire to our lodg­ings, which I con­fess were not quite as il­lus­tri­ous as Syd­ney or even Gay Street, two of Austen’s ad­dresses in Bath. Nev­er­the­less, our party of four found our twobed­room flat with sofa bed in the lounge in a con­verted Methodist church quite ad­e­quate for our needs.

The next morn­ing, we took a 20-minute walk into town and went di­rectly to Gay Street. Alas, Austen’s for­mer res­i­dence at No. 25 is now a den­tal prac­tice, but the Jane Austen Cen­ter is lo­cated at No. 40, a house sim­i­lar in size and style. The build­ing is an homage to Austen and her works. The perma- nent ex­hi­bi­tion re­counts her life in Bath and the city’s in­flu­ence on her writ­ing. Two of her nov­els, “Per­sua­sion” and “Northanger Abbey,” are par­tially set in Bath.

We at­tended a short lec­ture on Austen’s life by a guide in Ge­or­gian cos­tume.

The writer, he ex­plained, was the beloved sev­enth child of a cler­gy­man and his wife, and was very close to her only sis­ter, Cas­san­dra. Her lib­eral fa­ther en­cour­aged her writ­ing and one of her brothers, Henry, was in­stru­men­tal in launch­ing her lit­er­ary ca­reer.

Af­ter the death of her fa­ther in 1805, Austen, her mother and sis­ter slipped down the lad­der of Bath so­ci­ety, and the fam­ily left the city for good in 1806. Although she later be­came a pub­lished nov­el­ist, for­tune never fa­vored her. She died af­ter a long ill­ness on July 18, 1817, at the fam­ily home in Winch­ester. She was 41.

Af­ter view­ing copies of var­i­ous por­traits be­lieved to be of Austen, we watched a short film about her life in Bath, then I was dragged to the dress­ing-up cor­ner by Kitty for more bon­nets and dresses. I think she would en­joy a sea­son in Ge­or­gian Bath very much, though at age 6, I think it will be some years be­fore Bath so­ci­ety will be sen­si­ble to her charms.

The weather had wors­ened, so we set off, un­daunted, for the As­sem­bly Rooms, one of the places where 18th-cen­tury Bath res­i­dents went to min­gle. How­ever, the main rooms were closed for a pri­vate func­tion. Thwarted in our en­deav­ors, we walked back to­ward the Pump Room, where we had a reser­va­tion for lunch.

Bath’s 18th-cen­tury hey­day was in­spired by a nat­u­ral geo­ther­mal hot spring that bub­bles up in the cen­ter of the city. It is the only place in Bri­tain where such wa­ter comes to the sur­face in this way. The Ge­or­gians thought that the wa­ters had heal­ing prop­er­ties. In Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” the Al­lens were vis­it­ing Bath be­cause Mr. Allen suf­fered from gout. Peo­ple would bathe in the pub­lic baths and drink wa­ter from the springs at the Grand Pump, and I am told Austen did both.

To­day, the city of Bath is a UNESCO World Her­itage site, a sta­tus awarded not only for its Pal­la­dian-in­spired ar­chi­tec­ture but also its Ro­man ar­chae­ol­ogy. For as Austen and her com­pan­ions stood un­der the chan­de­lier of the Grand Pump Room, won­der­ing if a Mr. Til­ney or Cap­tain Went­worth would ever look in their di­rec­tion, be­low their feet lay an­other meet­ing­house where their Ro­man con­tem­po­raries re­laxed and so­cial­ized 17 cen­turies be­fore.

Stephen Clews, the man­ager of the Ro­man Baths and Pump Room, told me later via email that although the baths had been dis­cov­ered in 1727, Austen would not have been aware that such a mas­sive com­plex ex­isted be­low the streets, though she may have vis­ited a small mu­seum in the Guild Hall where the gilded bronze head of the Ro­man god­dess Sulis Min­erva was dis­played.

Un­like most Ro­man sites in Bri­tain, which were mil­i­tary gar­risons, the Ro­mans cre­ated a set­tle­ment in Bath in A.D. 43 as a place of re­lax­ation. The baths, which we toured af­ter lunch, have since been re­built above the level of the pil­lar bases, and their green wa­ters still in­trigue. The pil­lars above the baths are from the 19th cen­tury, our guide Laura Mount­ford ex­plained, but the bases that the pil­lars stand on are Ro­man. Much of the Ro­man ru­ins can be viewed on the tour, in­clud­ing the so­phis­ti­cated un­der-floor heat­ing.

Alas, as our 24-hour stay in this his­toric city came to an end, I doubted that we had made much of an im­pres­sion on Bath. But the city, its ar­chi­tec­ture, his­tory and, of course, lit­er­a­ture has left a last­ing im­pres­sion on me.

Starrs is a writer based in Lon­don. Her web­site is stay­ca­tioner.co.uk.

For the au­thor’s full list of rec­om­men­da­tions for Bath, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel


In Bri­tain, steam rises from the re­stored Ro­man Baths com­plex in aptly named Bath.


In­side the Royal Cres­cent row­houses in Bath, one unit — No. 1 — is re­stored to its Ge­or­gian splen­dor.

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