Jane Austen and Bath: Her Time There

Jane Austen and Bath have long been associated with one another partly because it was her home from 1801 to 1806. It was also about 116 miles west of London, and unrivalled as the head of English water places. At the time the Austen family moved there it was a thriving and vibrant spa town where fashionable society promenaded its streets However, it did not start out that way as described by a writer in the 1720s:

“As to the comforts and luxuries which were to be found in the interior of the houses of Bath by the fashionable visitors who resorted thither in search of health or amusement, … a writer who published an account of that city about sixty years after the revolution, has accurately described the changes which had taken place within his own recollection. He assures us that, in his younger days, the gentlemen who visited the springs slept in rooms hardly as good as the garrets which he lived to see occupied by footmen. The floors of the dining rooms were uncarpeted, and were colored brown with a wash made of soot and small beer, in order to hide the dirt. Not a wainscot was painted; not a hearth or chimney piece was marble. A slab of common freestone and fire irons, which had cost from three to four shillings, were thought sufficient for any fire-place. The best apartments were hung with coarse woollen stuff, and were furnished with rush bottomed chairs.”[1]

Jane Austen and Bath

Jane Austen. Public domain.

Jane, her parents, and her sister Cassandra moved to Bath in May of 1801 and leased a house at No. 4 Sydney Place, opposite Sydney Gardens, a public open space at the end of Great Pulteney Street. In 1804 they moved and lived at 3 Green Park Buildings East, and after Jane’s father died on 25 January 1805, they moved to 25 Gay Street and then again to Trim Street.

Jane Austen and Bath - Silhouette of Jane's sister Cassandra

Silhouette of Jane’s sister Cassandra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before the move to Bath, Jane came to accept it writing on 3 January 1801:

“I get more & more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly on the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, & the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful. … It must not be generally known however that I am not sacrificing a great deal in quitting Country — or I can expect to inspire no tenderness, no interest in those we leave behind.”[2]

Jane never gave a definitive statement as to her feelings about Bath, but her characters did. For instance, Anne Elliot of Persuasion greatly disliked it, while Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey loved everything about it. Of her parents’s decision to move there, one biographer notes:

“The decision by Mr and Mrs Austen to leave their home of over thirty years, taking their daughters with them, came as a complete surprise to her; in effect, a twenty-fifth birthday surprise, in December 1800. Not a word had been said to anyone in advance of the decision.”[3]

While living in Bath, Jane did not write. This has resulted in conjecture as to why. Some people argue she did not like the place and was depressed while others maintain she was too busy having fun. However, even though Jane left behind the quiet country life at Steventon, the city of Bath provided inspiration for two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. In fact, in Northanger Abbey, the protagonist, 17-year-old Catherine asks, “Who can be tired of Bath?”[4] If Jane was not excited about Bath, she made sure Catherine was when she first visited the city:

“Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”[5]

Jane first visited Bath in 1797 with her mother. They were there for a month and stayed at The Paragon in the Walcot area. That same year on 30 May, the English politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce and Barbara Ann Spooner married at the Anglican Church of St. Swithin on The Paragon. This is interesting because Jane had a connection to one of Barbara’s bridesmaids, Elizabeth Lillingston.

William Wilberforce. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jane knew Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Willielma-Joanna Dottin Lillingston. She was a 60-year-old widow who lived with her dog Malore at the fashionable address of 10 Rivers Street. She apparently thought highly of Cassandra and Jane because when she died she left them each the sum of £50. Jane used her money to lease a pianoforte.

Jane mentions Lillingston four times in her correspondence. The first mention was in a postscript on Tuesday 5 May: “We have had Mrs Lillingston & the Chamberlaynes to call on us,”[6] The second mentioned happened on 12 May, when Jane notes, “We met not a creature at Mrs. Lillingston’s, & yet were not so very stupid as I expected, which I attribute to my wearing my new bonnet & being in good looks.”[7] The third time Jane wrote of her was on 21 May:

“We are to have a tiny party here tonight; I hate tiny parties – they force one into constant exertion. – Miss Edwards & her father, Mrs Busby & her nephew Mr Maitland, & Mrs Lillingston are to be the whole; – and I am prevented from setting my black cap at Mr Maitland by his having a wife and ten Children.”[8]

The last mention occurs on 26 May, when Jane stated:

“My evening visit was by no means disagreable. Mrs Lillingston came to engage Mrs Holder’s conversation, & Miss Holder & I adjourned after tea to look over Prints and talk pathetically.”[9]

It is unclear if Jane met Wilberforce at this time, but she certainly knew of him and she later wrote about the hotly contested topic of slave trading in Emma and Mansfield Park. Although Wilberforce knew about Jane later in life and read her novels, as one website states “it is not at all inconceivable that, through Mrs Lillingston, they encountered Jane Austen.”[10]

Jane made a second visit to Bath two years later in 1799. While there, she wrote to her older sister Cassandra on Friday, 17 May:

“Well, here we are at Bath; we got here about one o’clock, & have been arrived just long enough to go over the house, fix our rooms & be every well pleased with the whole of it. … it has rained almost all the way, & our first view of Bath has been just as gloomy as it was last November twelvemonth.[11]

In the same letter she also noted Sydney Gardens and mentioned that she would not starve because a public breakfast was offered there every morning. In another letter dated Sunday 2 June she also stated that a “grand gala” was to happen on 4 June at the gardens that included fireworks, illuminations, and a concert. Apparently, there was some problem because she later wrote on 19 June:

“Last night we were in Sidney Gardens again, as there was a repetition of the Gala which went off so ill on the 4th. – We did not go till nine, & then were in very good time for the Fire-works, which were really beautiful, & surpassing my expectations; – the illuminations too were very pretty.”[12]

Besides visiting Sydney Gardens, there were plenty of other things to occupy Jane’s time. She could visit the theatre, a tradition that was popular among Jane’s family and relatives, such as Eliza de Feuillide or her well-to-do Uncle James Leigh-Perrot, who was married to Aunt Jane, a woman who was accused of shoplifting in the Bath. Jane Austen could also take long walks with old acquaintances and friends and gossip about all the happenings occurring in the city. In addition, she could also visit the Pump Room, a meeting spot for fashionable people that served refreshments, including mineral water obtained from the hot springs that was considered to be a cure-all.

Jane used the Pump Room as a romantic setting in her novel Northanger Abbey. It was the spot where Catherine is first introduced to her love interest, Henry Tilney, a rather tall gentleman, intelligent, and quite handsome. Jane wrote that Catherine was eager to go there to see him again, but, unfortunately,

“Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about and nobody wanted to see; and he only was absent.”[13]

Jane was familiar with the Pump Room because of her mother’s older brother, Leigh-Perrot. He suffered from gout and the Leigh-Perrots often visited Bath to help with his illness and to allow his wife to have a more active social life. While there he often went to the Pump Room as a cure. Jane accompanied him on some of his visits, and once noted, “I have never seen an old Woman at the Pump Room.”[14]

Jane could also visit the Crescent Fields (now known as Victoria Park) next to The Crescent (known today as the Royal Crescent), which was a curved row of 30 terraced houses with Ionic columns laid out in a sweeping crescent. John Wood the Younger was the architect and the homes were built between 1767 and 1774. Each purchaser bought a length of façade and behind it had their own architect build a custom house, so that sometimes what appeared to be two homes was one. Jane thought the spot was interesting enough that she not only walked there herself but also had her characters visit the spot.

Jane Austen and Bath - Royal Crescent

Royal Crescent in Bath in 1829. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Laura Place was another spot in Bath known to Jane. It was across the Pulteney Street Bridge, and she mentioned it several times in letters to Cassandra. One mention occurred on 3 January 1801, when she wrote: “The Houses in the Streets near Laura Palace I should expect to be above our price.”[15] She again mentioned on 14 January in relation to her father:

“At present the Environs of Laura-place seem to be his choice. His views on the subject are much advanced since I came home; he grows quite ambitious, & actually requires now a comfortable & a creditable looking house.”[16]

Another mention of Laura Place happened on Wednesday 21 January when Jane told Cassandra, “I join with you in wishing for the Environs of Laura place, but do not venture to expect it.”[17]  

There was also plenty of socializing that Jane could accomplish in Bath at formal balls or public assemblies as such events allowed young people to meet others outside their normal social circles. In Bath, assemblies were held either at the Lower Assembly Rooms, built in 1708 and located on Terrace Walk near the lower part of the city, or at the Upper Assembly Rooms, which were newer and located in the upper part of Bath near the Circus and Bennett Street. Jane described the rooms in 1801 as follows:

“[The Old, or Lower Rooms] are situated on the Walks, leading from the Grove to the North-parade the principal room is one of the pleasantest in the kingdom for a morning lounge, commanding a view of the adjacent hills, woods, the valley and the river Avon. The card room is likewise large and convenient. There are two excellent billiard tables in adjoining apartments. The dress balls are on Friday nights, excepting in Lent, when they are changed to Thursdays; the fancy or cotillion balls are on Tuesday nights; the subscription to the former is one guinea the season for two tickets, transferable to ladies; to the fancy balls half-a-guinea, the tickets not transferable. The amusements at the room are conducted by James King, Esq. … The New Assembly Rooms [Upper Rooms] were opened in the winter of 1771. The ball room is 105 feet long 42 wide and 42 high; there is a large concert or tea room, and an octagon tea room with a coffee room attached, likewise billiard rooms &c. The dress balls are on Monday night, the fancy or cotillion balls on Thursdays, excepting in Lent, when they are changed to Saturdays, the subscriptions the same as the lower rooms; the present master of the ceremonies is Richard Tyson, Esq.”[18]

Jane Austen and Bath

Fancy dress ball at the Bath Assemblies by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Public assemblies were held by subscription and included a series of balls scheduled over an entire season. To avoid competing events on the same evening, the Upper and Lower Rooms scheduled events on different nights. Balls in Bath usually began about 8pm and ended much earlier than they did in the country, probably because Bath was considered a haven and resort for the sick. In contrast to the public assemblies, owners of large country homes hosted private balls. Jane wrote about them in her novels: There was one in Pride and Prejudice hosted by Mr. Bingley at Netherfield Park and another in Mansfield Park hosted by Sir Thomas.

There were differences between assemblies and private balls. For instance, at private balls supper was served, but that was not the case at public assemblies where participants instead enjoyed tea about midway through the evening. However, in line with the tradition of a gentleman sitting at supper with the woman he danced with at a ball, gentlemen likewise sat with their dancing partner when they were served tea. Indicative of this tradition that allowed couples to get to know each other was Jane’s Northanger Abbey where Henry sits with Catherine just before tea is served.

Title Page from Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in 1818. Public domain.

Another difference between private dances and public assemblies was that gentlemen at private dances were introduced to and encouraged to dance with young women by friends, family, or associates. However, at public assemblies, gentlemen and young ladies were unknown to each other. Therefore, a Master of Ceremonies oversaw the ball’s protocol. He dd so because he knew the attendee’s backgrounds and could easily perform introductions. Jane used a Master of Ceremonies in her book Northanger Abbey, and, in fact, it was the Master of Ceremonies, a Mr. King, who served as cupid and introduced Catherine to her future husband Henry.

Private balls and impromptu dances also permitted women to dance with other women, something that many public assemblies only allowed when no gentleman were available to dance. One instance of Jane dancing with a female happened when she attended a dance at Steventon. She recorded it on 1 November 1800 when she wrote a letter to Cassandra, who was visiting their brother Edward in Godmersham Park:

“It was a pleasant Ball, & still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly 60 people, & sometimes we had 17 couple. … There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much . – I danced nine dances out of ten, five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute, & James Digweed & four with Catherine [Biggs].”[19]

Years later, after Jane had died, the city of Bath remembered her as one of their most famous residents. It happened in 1899, when a Mr. Wodehouse MP unveiled a memorial to her at Sydney Place where she and her family had resided almost a century earlier. The Evening Express noted of the unveiling:

“He rejoiced that Bath had paid a tribute of respect and admiration to a bright ornament of English literature, while a public subscription had just been raised to erect a memorial window to her pure and brilliant fame in Winchester Cathedral, which contained her grave.”[20]

References:

  • [1] Limerick Reporter, “Watering Place in the Olden Time,” January 26, 1849, p.  4.
  • [2] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 68.
  • [3] C. Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007)
  • [4] J. Austen and H. T. Austen, Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion v. 1 (London: John Murray, 1818), p. 179.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 16.
  • [6] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., p. 83.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 84.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 88.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 90.
  • [10] Anne Stott, “Wilberforce and Jane Austen: some possible connections,” accessed September 25, 2018, at Wilberforce
  • [11] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., p. 39–40.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 47.
  • [13] J. Austen, and H. T. Austen, p. 44.
  • [14] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., p. 42.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 67.
  • [16] Ibid., p. 73.
  • [17] Ibid., p. 76.
  • [18] Ibid., p. 593.
  • [19] Ibid., p. 53.
  • [20] Evening Express, “Memorial to Jane Austen,” September 14, 1899, p. 3.

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  1. Hels on August 18, 2019 at 12:46 am

    It is interesting that Jane Austen wanted to visit the Pump Room, presumably as you say because it was a favoured meeting spot for fashionable people that served refreshments.
    So of course she used the Pump Room as a romantic setting in Northanger Abbey, at least during the fashionable hours.

    But if there were endless crowds of people passing in and out, looking for cures for their diseases, I wonder how healthy and romantic the environment was.

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