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Article: Bath through Austen's eyes: Persuasion

Bath through Austen's eyes: Persuasion -

Bath through Austen's eyes: Persuasion

"As yet, you have seen nothing of Bath."


I am a frequent visitor to the city of Bath. In this revisit, I was a more intentional traveller.  I let Austen’s Persuasion be my guide.  With a detailed street map of Bath in my hand, I went exploring the places mentioned in the novel, coincidentally, many of them I missed in my last visit.

“I was not so much changed…” was Anne Elliot’s words to Captain Wentworth upon seeing him eight years after turning him down.  The termination of their relationship was not her own intention, but duty had driven her to yield to Lady Russell’s persuasion.  It would have been a “throw-away” for Anne at 19 to engage with “a young man who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, […] uncertain profession, and no connections.” (p. 20) But the star-crossed lovers are granted the bliss of a second chance, and rightly grab it this time.  Austen’s setting of Bath in the book is no coincidence.

The Georgian City was the centre of fashion and the epitome of genteel society, a hotbed of social phenom for the critic and satirist in Austen.  Jane had lived in Bath herself for four years, 1801 – 1805, with her sister Cassandra and their parents.  Ironically, she was unpersuaded by its attractions, according to her biographer Claire Tomalin. Austen aptly uses Bath’s addresses for the purpose of her characterization.  Geographical location is everything in a class-conscious society, as Keiko Parker’s excellent article Jane Austen’s Use of Bath in Persuasion points out. First off,  there’s the Pump Room, where in Jane Austen’s days people socialized and met one another, gathered to drink the therapeutic water, catch the latest fashion, simply to see and be seen.  The magnificent structure and decor makes The Pump Room a fine restaurant now:

Despite its grand decor, the areas around the baths are residences for the common folks in Austen’s time.  Mrs. Smith, the poor, infirmed widow with whom Anne maintains a loyal friendship, lives in the Westgate Buildings close to the Baths.  Anne becomes a laughing stock for the snobbish Sir Walter when he hears of her least favourite daughter is determined to visit Mrs. Smith instead of accepting an invitation to Lady Dalrymple’s, someone belonging to the upper echelon of society:

“Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations, are inviting to you.” (p. 113)

Today, the open area outside the Pump Room by the Roman Baths is perhaps the most popular tourist gathering place. Tour buses stop at the Bath Abbey for pick up and drop off, buskers perform in the open space outside the Roman Baths and Pump Room:

  Nearby is Sally Lunn’s Bun, originated in 1680 by a young French refugee, in the oldest house of Bath, ca. 1482.  Now a restaurant on top with the cellar a museum that houses the original kitchen and cookwares, Sally Lunn’s serves this traditional creation: a large, soft, round bun that can go with just about anything.  But probably best like this, simply with garlic butter:  

Milsom Street, a vibrant commercial area of shops and businesses.  The first time Anne saw Captain Wentworth again in Bath was on Milsom Street.  Here’s a present day view of the same site:


As for Sir Walter himself, despite having to rent out his country mansion Kellynch Hall to avoid financial ruins, he has no intention that his retreat to Bath should compromise his status and comfort.  It’s only natural that others are curious: “What part of Bath do you think they’ll settle in?”  The answer is quite obvious:  the part that is befitting their social standing.  According to Keiko Parker’s insightful article, physical elevation in Bath directly corresponds to social standing.  The highest point at that time would have to be Camden Place, which is today’s Camden Crescent.  While I was looking for it,  the ‘Ye Old Farmhouse Pub’ was mentioned to me as the marker.  I was glad to find it while walking up Landsdown Road, for it was indeed quite an uphill walk. 

  . “Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden Place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence; and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. Anne entered it with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months…” (p. 98) Just typical Austen, the overt contrast of characters using something indirect, here, the sense of place. The houses on Camden Crescent has unobstructive view of lower Bath.  They are not grand mansions, but then again, location is everything.  The following are some of the houses found on this road across from the escarpment:

And where do Sir Walter’s tenants Admiral and Mrs. Croft lodge during their short stay in Bath?  On Gay Street, not too high, not too low: “… perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction.  He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance, and did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him.” (p. 121)

Elizabeth is not even half as kind as her vain and snobbish father.  Regarding the Crofts’ arrival in Bath, she suggests to Sir Walter that “We had better leave the Crofts to find their own level.” (p. 120) In contrast, Anne has a good impression of the Admiral and his dear wife, the kind and down-to-earth couple. Mrs. Croft being the sister of Captain Wentworth having minimal bearing on Anne’s fondness of them. During their sojourn in Bath to mend a gouty Admiral Croft, Anne enjoys watching them strolling together, “it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her.” (p. 121) So I’m just not a bit surprised to see their temporary lodging in Bath being on Gay Street.

 Who else had lived there?  Jane Austen herself: #25 to be exact:


As for a suitable place for socializing, Sir Walter and his favourite daughter Elizabeth choose the Upper Assembly Rooms, a much newer development closer to their upper, more fashionable side of town, although he would prefer entertaining in private which is even more prestigious. The Assembly Rooms are a magnificent architectural legacy in their own rights.  Designed by John Wood the Younger, who raised the £20,000 needed for the venture, the ground-breaking project began in 1769 and opened for public use in 1771.  It was the biggest investment in a single building in 18th Century Bath. Four public rooms made up the suite:  The Octagon, Ball Room, Card Room, and Tea Room. “Sir Walter, his two daughters, and Mrs, Clay, were the earliest of all their party at the rooms in the evening; and as Lady Dalrymple must be waited for, they took their station by one of the fires in the Octagon Room (p. 131). Here’s the exquisite Octagon Room:

  Regarding the chandelier, there’s this interesting account in The Authorised Guide (p.7): “On 15 August 1771 Jonathan Collett quoted £400 for supplying five cut-glass chandeliers for the Ball Room.  They were up in time for the opening of the Rooms in September, but the following month disaster struck when ‘one of the arms of the chandilers in the Ballroom fell down during the time the company was dancing, narrowly missing  Gainsborough.  What could be salvaged from the set was made up into a single chandelier, which now hangs in the Octagon.” I was just simply amazed at how long these chandeliers had lasted, well over 300 years, and in excellent shape, their brilliance have not faded, evolving first from candlelights, then to gas, and now electric.

Anne and her party attend a music program in the Concert Hall.  That’s a function in the Tea Room.  Despite the name which seems to convey a small and cozy setting, the Tea Room is a gorgeous room of 60 ft. by 43 ft. dimension.  On one end is a magnificent colonnade of the Ionic order.  Subscription concerts are regular events held in the Tea Room. Mozart and Haydn had written compositions to be performed there, with Haydn himself having graced the magnificent venue.    But what does Anne Elliot think about all the grandeur?  After earlier in the Octagon Room talking with Captain Wentworth, who has openly expressed his long-held passion for her, Anne, overwhelmed by a great flood of euphoria, now walks into the Concert Room (Tea Room):

“Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room.  Her happiness was from within.  Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed; but she knew nothing about it.  She was thinking only of the last half hour…” (p. 134)

As a visitor to the historic venue, I was captivated by the well-maintained interior and its elegance, and presently amused and surprised to find this display in between two columns: The Chair, which is mentioned several times in Persuasion. The Bath Chair was invented right here in the Georgian City to transport the rich and the sick.  It could be steered by the passenger:     Jane might have noticed the frivolity and seen through the façade of high society of her time, and sharply depicted her observations in her brilliant novels, but as a modern day tourist and Janeite, I’m just amazed at how well history has been preserved, and that all these locations and life had been experienced by Jane herself. She might have the burden of society on her, which ironically had inspired and unleashed her talents, but for me, a present day tourist and reader of her works, I am totally persuaded that Bath is a place I will definitely revisit some more in the future.    

 Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen. All photos taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, August 2010.  All Rights Reserved. 

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