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 and chaotic, certainly not the ideal setting for her writing to flourish. Here, she also came to terms with the true quandary of being an unwed woman without an income. In 1805, Jane’s father passed away while the family were living in Bath, leaving the Austen women (Jane, sister Cassandra, and Mama Austen) destitute and without a home. During this turbulent period of her life, Jane abandoned her manuscript The Watsons and there is no evidence to suggest that Jane Austen wrote anything else at all in Bath.
Bath is home to The Jane Austen Centre, 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 a timeline of Jane’s life and how Bath influenced her life and writing. Once inside the main gallery you may 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, you can even dress up in empire-waisted dresses and bonnets. I left the centre with a much greater understanding of Jane Austen’s world and the importance of the social context in her novels.
Despite her literary fame, Jane remains a mysterious figure in history, although this could be quite intentional. Jane’s sister, Cassandra Austen destroyed most of Jane’s private letters to ensure their private correspondence remained untold, which we know from the clever rhetoric enclosed in the few letters that did survive, would have painted a vivid portrait of a witty satirist who loved to gossip and laugh with her sister. The destruction of the letters is a great historical tragedy, but the act in itself speaks volumes of the loyal and close relationship shared between Cassandra and Jane.
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 the 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 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 regency centre of town. There is a lovely Regency Tea Room where you can sit down for freshly baked scones and a cup of tea – and don’t forget to 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 hosts an annual Jane Austen Festival, a ten-day event held every September if you would like to get the full Jane Austen experience.
After torrential rain and thunderstorms in Bath, I was quite happy to continue my journey to my next stop, Chawton Cottage. Bath is such a beautiful city, but the rain was so heavy and persistent that even an umbrella was quite useless. This was not my first visit to Bath and I will certainly return.
The Jane Austen Centre
40 Gay Street
Telephone: +44 1225 443000
Open daily from 9.45am until 5.30pm