The Month of November in Regency Bath

The month is November, and we're back in the 1800s exploring Regency Bath.

The autumn has been mild, tentative and lingering, and then, suddenly, to borrow Coleridge's phrase, "at one stride comes the dark". Samuel Taylor ColeridgeJane Austen was unlikely to have read "The Ancient Mariner" or even to have heard of its slightly disreputable author, though Coleridge made several visits to Bath around the time of Jane's connection with the city. Posterity might consign these two great writers to the same library shelf because they coincide in history, but in life a huge gulf divided them. Barriers of gender, class and political affinity - not to mention the stifling social conventions - would have sent Miss Austen walking hurriedly past "STC", if she had ever encountered his scruffy, lurching figure. What a pity - the debate they never had, between imagination and self-discipline, could have lasted well into the new nineteenth century. They would have had much to debate on the subject of fear and its control. Although Jane Austen fought to keep at the helm of her own life's voyage - think of her tone of crisp irony, her narratives of wish-fulfilment - she was no stranger to "the nightmare, Life in Death" or even the albatross of guilt. Jane's central conflict was not addiction to laudanum, but rather the guilty secret of her own cleverness. If a woman have the misfortune to know anything at all, she had better conceal it as best she can. For eighteen months after her father's death in 1805, it seemed that she was being punished for her unfeminine ambitions. Her ship becalmed, she had to adjust to a life of genteel single poverty with a widowed, fretting mother, with no clue as to what quarter of the compass the wind would come to fill her sails again. During her darkest moments, she must have imagined she would be stuck in Bath choosing sponge cakes for the rest of her life. This month, we trace the downward slide of the Austen ladies, from Gay Street to Queen Square, slowly but surely down to the dreaded Trim Street. We won't find Jane taking to the laudanum bottle - though the drug is freely available to cure a spinster's tension headaches in all the local apothecary's shops. No, Jane's way was to control her frustrations and fears in her usual determined and discreet manner. As long as she had a friend - Martha Lloyd, perhaps -- on one arm, and her beloved sister on the other, she could pretend that the prospect of night and winter in her life was just a gossipy ghost story, to be spiked through with irony and related with self-protecting humour on the way home to a fireside supper. Around the few hundred yards of Gay Street, Queen Square, the gravel walk and the Circus, "Tales of the Beyond" abound. There's a ghost story for every evening of this season, through Hallowe'en, All Saints, All Souls and well into sombre November. Now is the time to remember the previous generation, the people who have gone before. The two Miss Austens and their friend Martha, a frequent visitor from rural Hampshire, are all but visible out of the corner of our collective vision. We climb in the twilight from no 25 Gay Street to the Circus, or make for the quiet and retired gravel walk via the thoroughfare now called Queen's Parade Place. These were the routes familiar to the three modest spinster ladies and popular with Jane in particular. She liked a route to be on the edge of things but not too improperly far from civilisation. She liked to be active as long as the light lasted and to take a breath of air before night closed around her, with the inevitable demands of Mrs Austen's card table. In Jane's time, the gravel walk at the back of the Circus was Bath's duelling field. This brutal, medieval method of settling quarrels, lingered on into the age of elegance, despite the strict ban attempted by Beau Nash. Then, as now, there were plenty of opportunities for hot-blooded and wine-soaked young men to throw away the precious gift of life. Bath was notorious for its gaming tables, its tales of seduction and betrayal. In the dusk of the Gravel Walk, you can really enjoy frightening yourself like a true addict of the Gothic. Stop and listen and you can still hear, above the spry rustle of dead leaves, the sound of clashing swords. They do say that some even experience a sudden piercing deadly chill around the heart. And here is the cloven yew tree by the black back gate. They do say (how deliciously spine-chilling the words sound - just like the cold sigh of a November night!) that here one can see a poor shivering young man, just eighteen, emerge from the door by the tree, and cross to the dell by the holly bush, there to meet his early death. Perhaps the shudder is not so delicious after all. Let's move on quickly. A little further on, and the thinning trees give way to a glorious view of the Crescent - elegant, yes, but just a little relentless with all those staring windows, alert for any irregularities, any elopements. The younger Miss Austen would have known all the literary gossip. Thirty years before Jane's residence in Bath, Mr Richard Sheridan - a dashing, penniless young Irishman. . . Was there a sly look between the sisters at this point in Jane's story? Did Cassandra ever dare to tease her about her partiality for dashing and penniless young Irishmen? It might have come to nothing, but Cass had been privy to Jane's dancing and sitting down at a Christmas ball in Hampshire with Irish Tom Lefroy. Ten years ago - when Jane had been sweet and twenty. All that sort of thing has been laid away years ago among the lavender with the white ball gowns of youth. Martha Lloyd didn't attract the Austen sailor brother, Frank. Cassandra's fiancé died of yellow fever back in '97. As for Jane's Tom Lefroy, he must have married long ago. On with the gossip about Sheridan, quickly - it at least has a good ending. In the 1770s, the then unknown future author of The Rivals ran away with a Miss Elizabeth Linley from No.11, The Crescent. It didn't end in a duel - the young lady's father dragged them home from France in disgrace. He soon changed his tune when the young man's play found success at Drury Lane. You see, money can be made out of literary endeavour, even when it's a penniless young Irishmen in the case. Jane would have liked that story. To her, the hope of recognition of her talent was more than a just dream, it was a Christian duty. Eventual publication was a rational hope, for two years before her father's death, the publishers Crosby and Co had accepted her novel "Susan". Mr Austen never saw his daughter's work out in the bookstalls, and Jane was still waiting as her months in Bath drew to a close. Crosby's ten pounds advance payment had long ago been spent with glee in Milsom Street, but surely Jane supposed that was a guarantee of his good faith. Jane Austen was never to see this novel, known to us as "Northanger Abbey", in print. Night falls. A spiteful little scutter of wind sends the dead leaves dancing into a corner of Queen Square. It's time for tea and cribbage back at no 25 Gay Street. The Austen ladies held this respectable enough address for six months at this time. Later, they decamped to Queen Square. It was a little cramped, confined as they were to just two floors. They just hoped to go no further down the hill. We will do anything in our power to avoid Trim Street. In fact, they ended up in this cul de sac for a final desperate six weeks before they quit Bath for good.  

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