Even if you’ve never read any of her novels, the chances are that you associate Jane Austen with Bath. She is an essential part of the literary history of the city, and is often seen as synonymous with Bath’s Georgian heritage. But why is she so important, and where are the best places to find Jane Austen in Bath?
Jane Austen And Bath
As for most people of her time and social class, Bath was an important part of Jane Austen’s world. She was a frequent visitor and occasional resident, and she mentioned the city in all of her novels. Two of the books – Persuasion and Northanger Abbey – have a substantial part of their action in Bath.
Many people decide to read (or re-read) Austen’s work before a visit to Bath. The stories are worth reading in their own right as an amusing exposition of social interaction and manners, but they also give an insight into the life of Georgian England. And Georgian England is what you see when you come to Bath, with much of the architecture dating from that period. As you walk part the grand crescents and colonnaded buildings it is easy to imagine that you are back in that era, mingling with the cream of society.
The Jane Austen Centre
The obvious place to start is at the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street. You are drawn into the Georgian period straight away, with staff dressed as Austen characters: we were greeted at the door by Captain Wentworth (from Persuasion) and shown round by Caroline Bingley (from Pride and Prejudice). The house is decorated in the fashion of the early 19th century, and music by Handel (who Austen admired) was playing in the reception area.
Although Austen did not live in this particular house, she and her family stayed in a similar property at 25 Gay Street. As you walk around you learn about the author’s life, her time in Bath and the ways in which the city influenced her novels. In fact, you learn that she didn’t much care for Bath, and disliked living there, but that didn’t deter her characters from visiting!
Before you leave, walk up to the stylish Regency Tea Room at the top of the house. (Cream teas might not have been common in Austen’s time, but don’t let that put you off!)
Fashionable Places In Regency Bath
Much of 21st century Bath would still be recognisable to Jane Austen. Most of the houses where she lived or visited are still standing, their facades little changed. The best address in Bath was probably the Royal Crescent: Anne Elliot in Persuasion couldn’t aspire to such a dwelling but would walk up to the Crescent for fresh air and the views. Today’s visitors can go into No 1 Royal Crescent – now a museum – to get an idea of how wealthy people might have lived at that time.
The Gravel Walk was – and still is – a secluded path between the Royal Crescent and the back of The Circus (another grand address). Here you could walk and avoid the noise and the bustle of traffic on the main road. The Gravel Walk was the scene of a pivotal meeting between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.
The Assembly Rooms
Apart from taking the waters, the main reason for Georgian high society to visit Bath was to mix with friends and acquaintances. This was particularly important for those with daughters of marriageable age, who needed to meet eligible men from the right families. Much of the entertaining was done at private parties, particularly by those who had taken large houses in the Royal Crescent or The Circus. However, there were also several public meeting places.
The Assembly Rooms were where grand balls and concerts took place. Such was the demand that there were two sets of assembly rooms. The Lower Rooms, in the centre of town, no longer exist, but their site is marked by a plaque on the parapet above the Parade Gardens. The Upper Rooms, close to The Circus, were badly damaged in World War II, but have now been restored to their former glory. You can walk around the opulent building and admire the ballroom, teamroom and the Octagon Room, where card games were played.
Jane Austen attended balls at the Assembly Rooms, as did her fictional creations. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot sits in the Octagon Room while waiting for a concert to begin. And Catherine Moreland (from Northanger Abbey) visits both the Upper and Lower Rooms.
The Pump Room And The Baths
The Pump Room, adjacent to the King’s and Queen’s Baths, were a place where “every creature in Bath… was to be seen in the room at different periods” (Northanger Abbey). It also features in Persuasion. Today the Pump Room is an elegant venue for lunch or afternoon tea. It also has a water fountain where you can drink the (supposedly) health giving water.
The Roman Baths themselves were redeveloped in the 18th century by John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, architects of much of Georgian Bath. Austen is known to have visited the Baths, but I can’t find any reference to her characters having done so.
Places Associated With Jane Austen In Bath
There are several houses in Bath where Austen lived or stayed:
- 1 The Paragon (Jane stayed here on her first visit to Bath in 1797)
- 13 Queen Square (she stayed here from May to June 1799)
- 4 Sydney Place (the family lived here for 3 years, from 1801 to 1804)
- Green Park Buildings (lived here from 1804 to 1805, leaving when her father died)
- 25 Gay Street (1805-06. In straitened circumstances, the family rented rooms rather than a whole house)
- 7 Trim Street (Austen’s final stay in Bath, from January to July 1806)
If you visit these properties you will see how the family’s fortunes declined over the years. Austen’s first visit was to a wealthy relative on The Paragon; her final stay was in the (at that time) rough and unfashionable city centre.
You may also wish to visit St Swithin’s Church, where Austen’s parents were married in 1764, and where her father was later buried (there is a plaque to him in the churchyard). And, across the road from the house in Sydney Place, are the Sydney Gardens. Although Austen disliked living in Bath – preferring the countryside – she welcomed the opportunity to walk in the Gardens. She wrote to her sister Cassandra that “it would be very pleasant to be near Sidney Gardens – we might go into the Labrinth every day…”
The labyrinth is no longer there, but you can still enjoy a walk in Sydney Gardens. Just one of many places to follow in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Bath!
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