In The Footprints Of Great Writers: Discover Literary Bath

Where to Discover Literary Bath

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For many people literary Bath is synonymous with Jane Austen, a frequent visitor and sometime resident of the city. But during Bath’s heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries many fashionable authors visited the city, and featured it in their writing. I have rounded up some of the most famous writers associated with Bath, and show where you can follow in their footsteps.

Bath In Early Literature

There are surprisingly few literary references to Bath prior to the 18th century. Probably the most famous is the Wife of Bath (in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), although the poem makes no reference to the city other than to note that she was from “biside Bathe”. (It is assumed that Chaucer chose Bath as her hometown because of its association with the wool trade from which the Wife of Bath derived her livelihood.)

A more satisfying early literary reference is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written around 1136. (I treat this as literature as it is regarded as more fiction than fact…) Geoffrey recounts the legend of King Bladud, who was forced to become a swineherd after he contracted leprosy. He founded the city of Bath around 863 BCE after he and his pigs were miraculously cured by bathing in the local hot springs. Today you can see a statue of Bladud in the Parade Gardens, and another in the King’s Bath (within the Roman Baths complex).

Statue of Bladud, Bath
Statue of Bladud, and one of his pigs, in the Parade Gardens

Another – slightly tenous – literary connection: Bladud was the father of King Lear. However you won’t find any mention of Bath in Shakespeare’s play!

Literary Bath In The Early Modern Period

Although Bath was a well known spa in Roman times, the city later declined. But the supposedly curative properties of the hot springs and mineral waters were rediscovered in the 17th century and wealthy people began to flock to the city. Samuel Pepys visited for a few days in 1668 and described the experience in his diaries. He went to the baths and walked around the city walls (which were apparently still complete at that time, although only fragments remain today). Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have recorded where he stayed. (You can read the relevant pages of Pepys diaries here – scroll to the bottom to get the next day.)

The influx of visitors led to a building boom in the 18th century and to the grand architecture that you can still see today. It is not surprising that many of the important literary and artistic figures of the Georgian period were familiar with Bath.

Assembly Rooms, Bath
The Assembly Rooms would have been an important meeting place for visitors to Bath – and for their literary creations!

Henry Fielding And Bath

The novelist Henry Fielding lived for a while in the village of Twerton, now a part of Bath. It was here that he wrote his great comic novel, Tom Jones, published in 1749. At other times he stayed with his sister Sarah – also a writer – who lived in Widcombe Lodge. The Lodge, not far from Bath station, has a plaque commemorating both Henry and Sarah.

Henry was a friend of Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur, and often visited him at his stately home at Prior Park. Allen became the model for Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones.

Alexander Pope And Bath

Another friend of Ralph Allen’s, and a frequent guest at Prior Park, was the poet and satirist Alexander Pope. Although Bath doesn’t feature in Pope’s writings – apart from in a few of his letters – his influence can be seen in other ways. He was very interested in garden design, and his ideas helped to shape the gardens at Prior Park. In particular, he designed the grotto in the park, based on the famous grotto at his own home in Twickenham in London. (The grounds of Prior Park are now owned by the National Trust, and are open to the public.)

Prior Park, Bath
The gardens at Prior Park were influenced by Pope’s ideas

Other Georgian Writers In Bath

The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan lived in Bath for two years, long enough to cause a scandal and fight a duel! His play The Rivals was set in Bath, and there is a plaque in his honour at 9 New King Street. And the novelist Fanny Burney spent some time at Great Stanhope Street. She died in the city, and there is a commemorative plaque in the grounds of St Swithin’s Church, beside the memorial to George Austen, Jane’s father.

St Swithin's Church, Bath
There are plaques in the churchyard of St Swithin’s to both Fanny Burney and George Austen

Other famous literary visitors include Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson.

Literary Bath In The 19th Century

By the 19th century Bath had become one of the largest cities in Britain. Transport links improved, with the coming of the railway and a canal, as well as the regular stage coach services. And the fashionable visitors continued to arrive. One such visitor was Mary Shelley, who wrote much of her novel Frankenstein while staying in Bath (there is a plaque outside the Roman Baths and an information board inside the building).

Jane Austen And Bath

Jane Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806, and visited on many other occasions. It was so much a part of her world that she mentioned the city in all of her novels, even the ones that are not actually set there. As you walk around Bath there are constant reminders of the places associated with her and her fictional characters.

There is so much to say about Jane Austen and her association with Bath that she gets a whole post to herself. Read more about Jane Austen…

Jane Austen and Literary Bath
Pinnable image of Jane Austen and Literary Bath

Charles Dickens And Bath

Charles Dickens visited Bath many times. He is thought to have stayed at the Saracen’s Head, and at the home of his friend Walter Savage Landor at 35 St James Square (there is a plaque outside Landor’s house). And it is possible that a neighbouring shop (now a private home) was the inspiration for the Old Curiosity Shop. What is more certain is that Dickens often stayed at the York House Hotel on George Street (now a Travelodge).

Saracen's Head, Bath
Charles Dickens is supposed to have stayed at the Saracen’s Head

The city features in the Pickwick Papers. The protagonist is supposed to have been based on Moses Pickwick, landlord of the White Hart Inn (opposite the Pump Room but no longer standing). And it is claimed that the Sam Wellers pub – where you can still enjoy a pint – is the place where Pickwick’s servant Sam Weller once drank.

Literary Bath In The 20th Century

One prolific 20th century writer was Georgette Heyer, who set many of her Regency romances in the city. And Angela Carter, the magical realist author known for works including The Bloody Chamber, lived here in the 1970s.

John Betjeman And Bath

But special mention has to go to John Betjeman, who was Poet Laureate from 1972 to 1984. Betjeman was passionate about the preservation of architecture and was for many years a trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust. One short poem from this time was entitled In a Bath teashop.

In later years Betjeman became critical of development in the city. In 1973 he wrote a poem called The Sack of Bath in response to the demolition and rebuilding of Southgate. He didn’t live long enough to see Bath become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. However I like to think he would have been reassured by it…

Literary Bath Today

Bath continues to attract and inspire both authors and book lovers. Regular literary events are hosted by the independent booksellers, Toppings and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, and city-wide events include the annual Bath Festival and the Jane Austen Festival.

And, finally, Bath is a major source of inspiration for film makers, and many productions for both TV and the big screen have been filmed here. One recent blockbuster production has been Bridgerton, and you can explore many of the filming locations in the city.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.


8 thoughts on “In The Footprints Of Great Writers: Discover Literary Bath”

  1. For us travel writers, a post like this is so interesting. I knew about Jane Austen’s solid connection to bath but…Charles Dickens, Alexander Pope, and so many others!

    1. Hi Conor, you’re absolutely right – although she is more associated with Bristol, Angela Carter did live in Bath for a while. She mentioned the city in her letters, but I’m not sure if she featured it in any of her novels or short stories.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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