The first stop on my little Jane Austen road trip was Bath, where Jane lived between 1801 to 1806 and set two of her novels, Northanger Abbey & Persuasion. The problematic nature of being a lady in Regency England was that young women had to marry to secure their future. Jane Austen wove this predicament into all of her novels, commenting ever so gently that this was utter nonsense. After all, she was an intelligent woman who just wanted a quiet place to write and didn’t fancy the idea of marrying for pragmatic reasons.
Despite her literary fame, Jane remains an illusive figure in history. Very few of her letters survived as a result of her sister, Cassandra Austen, burning them. Which we know, from the few letters that did survive, would have painted a vivid portrait of a witty satirist. Cassandra and Jane were the very best of friends and their letters would have been filled with gossip, humour and clever rhetoric – and while the loss of their letters is a historical tragedy, Cassandra acted as a true friend and sister, ensuring that their private correspondence remained untold.
Bath is home to The Jane Austen Centre, a gallery that provides a historical snapshot of the Regency period. Upon arrival, you will be met by a guide dressed as a Jane Austen characters, our guide was Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She welcomed our group and created a sense of context by explaining a timeline of Jane and how Bath influenced her life and writing. Once inside the main gallery you can wander at your own pace, choosing to linger at each display as long as you like. The exhibition is a journey through the fashion, social life, and etiquette of Regency Bath. The gallery is fun and interactive, you can even dress up in bonnets and empire waisted dresses to take photos.
The most impressive part of the collection is the wax figure of Jane Austen, which took forensic artist Melissa Dring three years to sculpt. A true likeness is impossible to verify, but the figure is based on an 1810 sketch by Cassandra Austen and first-hand quotes that describe Jane’s appearance.
As to my Aunt’s personal appearance, hers was the first face that I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long – she had a bright clear complexion and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally – it was in short curls around her face – Caroline Austen
The centre is housed within the same style of Georgian townhouse that Jane Austen lived during her time in Bath in the old regency centre of town. The centre is dedicated more to regency life in Bath than Jane Austen’s life exclusively, but I walked away with a greater understanding of her world and the important role that social context played in her novels.
The Jane Austen Centre has a lovely regency tea room where you can treat yourself to freshly baked scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream. Follow your visit with a look at all the marvellous Austen goods in the gift shop afterwards. I may have purchased an iconic I love Mr Darcy tote bag as a souvenir.
Bath also hosts an annual Jane Austen Festival, a ten day event held every September for Janeites wondering when the best time to visit might be.
The Jane Austen Centre
40 Gay Street
Telephone: +44 1225 443000
Open daily from 9.45am until 5.30pm
After torrential rain and thunder storms in Bath, I was actually quite happy to leave. Bath is such a beautiful city, but the rain was so heavy and persistent that even an umbrella was rendered quite useless. This was not my first visit to Bath and I will certainly return again in the future, so I swiftly began my journey to the next stop, Hampshire in England’s south.