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 important 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 Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (in the 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 was 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 BC 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 Bath complex).
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.
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.)
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.
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…
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).
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
Bath continues to provide inspiration for authors. One prolific 20th century writer was Georgette Heyer, who set many of her Regency romances in the city.
John Betjeman and Bath
But I have to end with 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…
This is by no means an exhaustive list of writers associated with Bath. Do you know of any others? Let me know in the comments below.
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.