The first stop on my little Jane Austen road trip was the Georgian city of Bath, where Jane lived between 1801 and 1806 and set two novels, Northanger Abbey & Persuasion. The problematic nature of being a woman in Regency England was that you had to marry to secure your future. Jane Austen wove this predicament into her novels, implying ever so gently that this was utter nonsense.
After all, Jane was an intelligent woman who just needed a quiet place to write and didn’t fancy the idea of marrying for pragmatic reasons. Bath was an important chapter in Jane’s life and her experiences there shaped her life irrevocably, almost ruining her writing career. It was noisy, chaotic, and stifled her capacity to write. Here, she also came to terms with the true quandary of being an unwed woman without means or the ability to earn an income. In 1805, Jane’s father passed away while the family were living in Bath, leaving the Austen women (consisting of Jane, sister Cassandra, and their mother) destitute and without a home. During this turbulent period of her life, Jane abandoned writing her manuscript The Watsons and there is no surviving evidence to verify if she wrote anything else while living in Bath.
Bath is home to The Jane Austen Centre and Regency Tea Rooms, a gallery that provides a historical snapshot of the Regency period. Upon arrival, a guide dressed like a Jane Austen character leads the tour. Our guide was Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, who explained Jane’s family tree, her history and how Bath influenced her life and writing. Once inside the main gallery you can wander at your own pace, lingering at each display as long as you like. There is a wealth of information on offer as you journey through the fashion, social scene, and etiquette of Regency Bath. The gallery is fun and interactive, and you can dress up in empire-waisted dresses and bonnets and play dress ups. I left the centre with a much greater understanding of Jane Austen’s world and the significance of the social context in her novels.
Despite her literary fame, Jane herself remains a mysterious figure in history. Jane’s sister, Cassandra Austen, intentionally destroyed most of Jane’s private letters to ensure their sisterly correspondence remained untold, which based on the clever rhetoric enclosed in the few letters that did survive, would have likely painted a vivid portrait of a witty satirist who loved to gossip and laugh with her sister. The destruction of their letters is a historical tragedy, but the act in itself speaks volumes of the loyal and close relationship shared between Cassandra and Jane.
The most impressive display in the collection is a 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 the 1810 sketch by Cassandra Austen combined with first-hand quotes that described 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 in short curls around her face – Caroline Austen
The centre is housed inside a Georgian townhouse, similar to the one that Jane Austen lived in during her time in Bath, in the old centre of town. There is a Regency tea room serving tea, freshly baked scones and sweets, plus a wonderful little gift shop on the way out, where I purchased a (very cheesy) iconic I love Mr Darcy tote bag as a souvenir.
Bath hosts an annual Jane Austen Festival, a ten-day event held every September for those who would like the ultimate Jane Austen experience. My visit was quite fleeting this time, with torrential rain so heavy and persistent that even an umbrella was quite useless, so I decided to continue my journey towards the next stop, Chawton Cottage.
The Jane Austen Centre
40 Gay Street