Jane Austen's December in Regency Bath
December has arrived and despite all the frantic busyness, the instinct is to be retrospective, to take a long last look down the way we have come. The turning of any year – whether 2001 or 1805 – marks the end of a cycle.
Jane Austen’s last frugal lodgings here in Regency Bath were a stone’s throw from the most elegant and stylish shops outside London. Bath’s commercial backbone runs up from the Colonnades to Union Street, and from Bond Street into Milsom Street, meeting the shoulders of Edgar Buildings at the top. In distance, it’s only a few hundred sloping yards, but every step of the way is paved with gold. "Why here one may step out and get a thing in five minutes!" -
as long as you have the spending power, of course.
In Jane’s day, shopping was one of the few activities acceptable for an unescorted lady. She was allowed to – and judging from the letters, frequently did - slip out alone to make her modest purchases. There would be commissions to fulfil for rural friends, trivial errands on behalf of her mother or sister, and at this time of year, a chance to look for the customary single simple gift for her closest friends and relations. The coldly elegant, slightly ageing crowd, the sense of a social phenomenon on the edge of decline, clearly both fascinated and exasperated the sharp-eyed Miss Austen.
Jane was by nature an eager shopper and a generous giver. As soon as she earned herself some "pewter" with her writing she would make sure others shared her good fortune. There would be a new gown for Cassandra – "No words! – my present"
she would say, on that glorious day when the cheque arrived. But meanwhile, what could she afford to write on her Christmas list for 1805? She was just another single woman with a dreadful propensity to be poor.
Perhaps she paused to look up towards the Paragon where Aunt and Uncle Leigh-Perrot lived in frosty affluence. For them, perhaps the gifts of a blank account book and a beaded purse – empty - might drop the required hint.
Jane was to make Sir Walter Elliot’s shrewd lawyer maintain that here one could "be important at no great expense". In fact, his creator spent her five years exile being not at all important at the expense of practically nothing. Her annual allowance before her father’s death had been a mere £20. By 1805, it was reduced still further. Her brother Henry’s cheery pronouncement that on £450 per annum the three ladies could know "no deprivations" had been fatuously optimistic - like many of his miscalculations. Prices, even of basic foodstuffs, had rocketed due to the war with France. Lodgings in Bath were very expensive. The Austen ladies had reduced their household to one servant. There had been no more pleasure trips to the sea. Even so, each move they had made had been further down Bath’s hills towards the cold waters of the Avon.
And there had been sharper deprivations than the merely material. For Jane, life in Regency Bath without her father’s gently satirical outlook and "sweet benevolent smile" must have been like potatoes without salt.
Next item on the list – something for mother. Maybe a home-made embroidered pill box with a note to the effect that next year, she would buy some pills to go in it, depending on what was then the prevailing complaint. There was no shortage of pink pills in the numerous apothecaries’ shops - enough to cover even Mrs Austen’s exotic range of symptoms. No – Jane reproved herself – that would be undutiful as a daughter’s gift to a recently-widowed mother. Heaven defend her from becoming a sourpuss! Maybe a gift to herself of that silver vinaigrette in the jeweller’s window would be more appropriate.
The season of goodwill was approaching, and in Wesley’s words "Light and Life to all He brings" – even, presumably, to those who can’t afford to rent a pew Sunday by Sunday in one of Regency Bath’s elegant churches. Jane knew the interior of the Octagon Chapel on the right side of Milsom St, with the circulating library rooms at the front. . She knew its fashionable oval design, the alcoves with lit fires and the altar cloth depicting the healing pool of Bethesda. Perhaps even this apparently apt design was a sly reminder of how the quickest, the most powerful and the privileged, got to the healing waters first. All the chapels in Bath - the commodious chapel off Laura Place and the Classical Temple off Queen Square – were so warm, so elegant, so. . . . classical. Did Jane allow herself to yearn for the plain narrow thirteenth-century church at Steventon, with its memorial to her grandmother Leigh, and the sense of the simple traditions of centuries? Her brother James’s parishioners would be out searching for holly to decorate the place for the special Christmas Communion. But banish the thought.
Ironically, there were plenty of people coming in from the countryside, only too happy to exchange places with her. The streets of Bath would be filling quickly for the winter season. Artless characters, such as the seventeen-year-old heroine of her unpublished Bath novel, and her silly chaperone, Mrs Allen, simply loved the place. "Here are a variety of amusements…" "so many things to be seen and done!" "I believe I shall be always talking of Bath
…." But times were changing fast. Already these creatures belonged to the last century, when ladies had worn huge ostrich feathers and long trailing muslin trains, which had to be pinned up for dancing. A time when one could still see powdered heads and even young men in knee breeches, and she herself had been full of zest for Regency Bath society. "Oh, who could ever be tired of Bath?"
Well, it was tiring enough now, toiling up, up against the flow of the crowds, toward busy George St, dodging yet another coachful bound for the Royal York Hotel. She would some day write about another heroine, someone who was mature enough to have got heartily tired of Regency Bath. An elegant little woman of twenty-seven or so passes in the crowd and sets her imagination off. She notes the elegant neck, the downcast glance, and the mixture of delicacy and fortitude in the set of the head. This would be a heroine written on her own heart. This woman would have a "silent and persistent dislike of Bath".
She would "see Bath more clearly through the rain
At last, Edgar Buildings is reached, with its elevated pavement and view overlooking the shoppers and the front of the Royal York Hotel. Jane pauses to look back down at the way she has climbed, her Hill of Difficulty. She feels, despite all, a lifting of the spirits to have come so far and learnt so much. Why, surely the oyster, solitary and irritated by the grit in its shell, somehow manages to produce a pearl of great price. In the years to come – and there may be several before the miracle takes place - her own pearl would be a perfect novel, a story of this solitary heroine who slowly paces the gradual ascent, heedless of all but the man at her side, with whom she would be reunited at the end of the book.
The novel should have a symmetrical one-word title beginning with P. "Pearl"?
No, far too short - and too symmetrical. Three syllables, and an abstract noun. "Perfection"?
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