Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 12 - Bath

At the end of 1800, Mr. Austen made up his mind to put his son James into the rectory at Steventon as locum tenens, and himself retire to live at Bath. In those days parents were not quite so communicative to their children as they are now; many things were decided without being discussed in full family conclave, as propriety dictates at present, and the change of plan does not seem to have been mooted to the girls at all, so that, "coming in one day from a walk, as they entered the room their mother greeted them with the intelligence: 'Well, girls, it is all settled. We have decided to leave Steventon and go to Bath.' To Jane, who had been from home, and who had not heard much before about the matter, it was such a shock that she fainted away . . . she loved the country, and her delight in natural scenery was such that she would sometimes say it must form one of the delights of heaven." (From Family MSS. quoted by Constance Hill, in Jane Austen, Her Homes and Her Friends.) The break up of the home of one's childhood is no trifling matter, and it often carries with it removal from many friends and neighbours whose society has become an integral part of life. It is no wonder that the blow was severe, yet Jane was of a cheerful disposition, a disposition that could make its own happiness anywhere, and it was not long before she entered with alacrity into all the needful preparations.

She wrote not long after, "I get more and more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived long enough in this neighbourhood; the Basingstoke balls are certainly on the decline; there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, and the prospect of spending future summers by the sea or in Wales is very delightful. For a time we shall now possess many of the advantages which I have often thought of with envy in the wives of sailors or soldiers. It must not be generally known, however, that I am not sacrificing a great deal in quitting the country, or I can expect to inspire no tender interest in those we leave behind."

Mr. Austen was perfectly justified in his decision to stop work; he was then seventy, and had held the two livings for thirty-six years, his son James was ready to take them up, he was living in the neighbourhood, and had been of assistance to his father for some time past. We learn this from many casual sentences in the letters, such as the following: "James called by my father's desire on Mr. Bayle to enquire into the cause of his being so horrid. Mr. Bayle did not attempt to deny his being horrid, and made many apologies for it; he did not plead his having a drunken self, he talked only of a drunken foreman, etc., and gave hopes of the tables being at Steventon on Monday se'nnight next."

Mr. Austen died in 1805, only four years after the removal, which shows that he had not withdrawn from active life at all too soon. In giving up country life he had to give up also many of the hobbies in which he had taken delight; his pigs and his sheep could not accompany him to Bath. References to these animals often occur in his daughter's lively letters. "My father furnishes him [Edward] with a pig from Cheesedown; it is already killed and cut up, but it is not to weigh more than nine stone; the season is too far advanced to get him a larger one. My mother means to pay herself for the salt and the trouble of ordering it to be cured, by the spareribs, the souse, and the lard."

"Mr. Lyford gratified us very much yesterday by his praises of my father's mutton, which they all think was the finest that was ever ate." "You must tell Edward that my father gave twenty-five shillings apiece to Seward for his last lot of sheep."

In Bath, pigs, poultry, and a garden would be impossible, but there would be compensating advantages. The country life had but narrow interests, and trifles had to be made the most of.

Jane's letters for the last few years before leaving Steventon show some of the decadence due to trivial surroundings, and her remarks are apt to be spiced with unkindness. Evidently her sister-in-law, James's wife, was not a favourite; she objected to her husband's being so much at Steventon, though Jane notes that he persevered in coming "in spite of Mary's reproaches." But Jane's sharpness is also extended to her remarks on her acquaintances. "The Debaries persist in being afflicted at the death of their uncle, of whom they now say they saw a great deal in London."

Poor Debaries, it is quite possible that his death had showed them how much they had cared for him, at all events, after his death they could have had nothing to gain by any display of affection! After a small ball Jane writes: "There were very few beauties, and such as there were were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, and Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck. The two Miss Cores were there; I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad-featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the other is refined into a nice composed-looking girl like Catherine Bigg. I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys and thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter, and thought her a queer animal with a white neck." And later she adds: I had the comfort of finding out the other evening who all the fat girls with long noses were that disturbed me at the 1st H. ball." It is obvious that a wider horizon would do the writer of these remarks no harm.

The income which the family would have is indicated in the following remark of Jane's made about this time: "My father is doing all in his power to increase his income, by raising his tithes, etc., and I do not despair of getting very nearly six hundred a year."

Once the great fact of the removal was settled, there remained the minor difficulty as to which part of Bath would be the best to live in; of this Jane writes: "There are three parts of Bath which we have thought of as likely to have houses in them--Westgate Buildings, Charles Street, and some of the short streets leading from Laura Place or Pulteney Street. Westgate Buildings, though quite in the lower part of the town, are not badly situated themselves. The street is broad and has rather a good appearance. Charles Street, however, I think is preferable. The buildings are new, and its nearness to Kingsmead Fields would be a pleasant circumstance. Perhaps you may remember, or perhaps you may forget, that Charles Street leads from the Queen's Square Chapel to the two Green Park Streets. The houses in the streets near Laura Place I should expect to be above our price. Gay Street would be too high, except only the lower house on the left hand side as you descend. Towards that my mother has no disinclination; it used to be lower rented than any other house in the row, from some inferiority in the apartments. But above all others her wishes are at present fixed on the corner house in Chapel Row which opens into Prince Street. Her knowledge of it, however, is confined only to the outside, and therefore she is equally uncertain of its being really desirable as of its being to be had. In the meantime she assures you that she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street, although you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it, which was rather expected. We know that Mrs. Perrot will want to get us into Oxford Buildings, but we all unite in particular dislike of that part of the town, and therefore hope to escape." This was from Steventon in January 1801.

The Mrs. Perrot is the aunt, Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, before mentioned, she was sister-in-law to Mrs. Austen, and her husband had taken the additional name of Perrot. It was from him that Mr. Austen-Leigh inherited the additional name of Leigh when he came into the estate. The Austen family seem to have been almost as much in the habit of changing their names as of marrying twice.

The topography of the letter can only be appreciated by those who know Bath, and requires little comment. The various streets mentioned are still existing, and we can pass through the despised Trim Street, survey the house in Gay Street lower rented than the others, or cross over the river to Laura Place to see the neighbourhood Jane feared would be too expensive, just as well now, as she could then.

In May of 1801, Jane, with her father and mother, went to Bath and stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot; at Paragon, in order to hunt for a house. Paragon remains unchanged, the doorways enclosed by pent-house and pilasters remain the very type of late eighteenth-century architecture.

It is easy to imagine the difficulties that had to be encountered by the ilustens in their quest.

"In our morning's circuit we looked at two houses in Green Park Buildings, one of which pleased me very well. We walked all over it except into the garret; the dining-room is of a comfortable size, just as large as you like to fancy it; the second room about fourteen feet square. The apartment over the drawing-room pleased me particularly, because it is divided into two, the smaller one, a very nice sized dressing-room which upon occasion might admit a bed. The aspect is south-east. The only doubt is about the dampness of the offices, of which there were symptoms."

"Yesterday morning we looked into a house in Seymour Street which there is reason to suppose will soon be empty; as we are assured from many quarters that no inconvenience from the river is felt in those buildings, we are at liberty to fix on them if we can. Hut this house was not inviting; the largest room downstairs was not much more than fourteen feet square, with a western aspect."

"I went with my mother to look at some houses in New King Street, towards which she felt some kind of inclination, but their size has now satisfied her. They were smaller than I expected to find them; one in particular out of the two was quite monstrously little; the best of the sitting-rooms not as large as the little parlour at Steventon, and the second room in every floor about capacious enough to admit a very small single bed."

Facade of the Pump Room, Bath, the Eighteenth Century

Façade of the Pump Room, Bath, the Eighteenth Century

"Our views on G.P. Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damp still remaining in the offices pendants to the great central chandelier, we see it as it was in Jane's day. The fluted pilasters running up to the ceiling are very characteristic of the florid Georgian taste. In a print of the interior of the Pump Room, dated 1804, me see all the women, even the attendants, with bare arms and necks, quite uncoverzd, a fashion revived in 1805,--and some of the women wear a kind of modified poke-bonnet with "coquelicot" plumes. In the alcove at the end is a statue of fat little Beau Nash, who was the regenerator and in some sense the maker of Bath.

But Nash's name is associated even more with the Assembly Rooms than the Pump Room. The Assembly Rooms are some distance from the Pump Rooms and the Baths, being situated not far from the famous crescent. In Jane's time there were two sets of Assembly Rooms, upper and lower, governed by two different masters of the ceremonies, positions which were much coveted. In 1820 the Lower Rooms were burnt down and not rebuilt, but the Upper are still used, and the names over the doors of the rooms, Card-room, Tea-room, etc., recall many a scene in Jane Austen's novels.

Bath really began to be fashionable in the early part of Queen Anne's reign, but it was Nash who consolidated its attractions, and brought it up to its highest pitch of popularity.

When he went there "the amusements of the place were neither elegant nor conducted with delicacy. General society among people of rank or fortune was by no means established. The nobility still preserved a tincture of Gothic haughtiness, and refused to keep company with the gentry at any of the public entertainments of the place. Smoking in the rooms was permitted; gentlemen and ladies appeared in a disrespectful manner at public entertainments in aprons and boots. With an eagerness common to those whose pleasures come but seldom, they generally continued them too long, and thus they were rendered disgusting by too free an enjoyment. If the company liked each other they danced till morning. If any person lost at cards he insisted on continuing the game till luck should turn. The lodgings for visitants were paltry, though expensive, the dining-rooms and other chambers were floored with boards coloured brown with soot and small beer to hide the dirt; the walls were covered with unpainted wainscot, the furniture corresponded with the meanness of the architecture; a few oak chairs, a small looking-glass, with a fender and tongs, composed the magnificence of these temporary habitations. The city was in itself mean and contemptible, no elegant buildings, no open streets, no uniform squares."

Thither Nash came in 1705. He was the man of all others to organise fashionable entertainments. Under his severe, yet fatherly rule, the place sprang quickly into popularity. Houses were built, streets repaved, balls and entertainments followed each other in quick succession. An Assembly Room was built, and good music engaged; but it was not until 1769, eight years after Nash's death, that the present building was erected. Nash's code of rules continued in force for long after his death, before which he had sunk from the position of esteem which he had once enjoyed. His rules throw some light on the conduct of these delightful assemblies, and are worth quoting--

  1. That a visit of ceremony at first coming, and another at going away, are all that are expected or desired by ladies of quality and fashion--except impertinents.
  2. That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen coming to wait on them home, to prevent disturbance and inconvenience to themselves and others.
  3. That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps show breeding and respect.
  4. That no person take it ill that anyone goes to another's play or breakfast and not theirs; except captious by nature.
  5. That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls to any but gentlewomen. N.B.--Unless he has none of his acquaintance.
  6. That gentlemen crowding before the ladies at the ball show ill manners; and that none do so for the future except such as respect nobody but themselves.
  7. That no gentleman or lady takes it ill that another dances before them except such as have no pretence to dance at all.
  8. That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at a ball, as being past or not come to perfection.
  9. That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them.
  10. That all whisperers of lies or scandal be taken for their authors.
  11. That all repeaters of such lies and scandal be shunned by the company; except such as have been guilty of the same crime.
Nash's rigour in regard to appearances in the case of top-boots is elsewhere mentioned, he disliked quite as much the aprons which smart ladies then wore on many occasions, and when the Duchess of Queensberry entered one evening in.one of these, he snatched it off and flung it over the back benches among the ladies' maids. The rules for balls were probably very much the same when Jane Austen attended them as when Nash was living. Everything was to be performed in proper order. Each ball was to open with a minuet danced by two persons of the highest distinction present. When the minuet concluded the lady was to return to her seat, and Mr. Nash was to bring the gentleman a new partner. The minuets generally continued two hours. At eight the country dances began, ladies of quality according to their rank standing up first. About nine o'clock a short interval was allowed for rest, and for the gentlemen to help their partners to tea, the ball having begun, it must be remembered, about six. The company pursued their amusements until the clock struck eleven, when the music ceased instantly; and Nash never allowed this rule to be broken, even when the Princess Amelia herself pleaded for one dance more.

Among other rules was one mentioned by Mr. Austen-Leigh, that ladies who intended to dance minuets were requested to wear lappets to distinguish them. Also, in order that every lady may have an opportunity of dancing, gentlemen should change their partners every two dances. We see in this last rule how the transition from one partner for the whole evening to the continual change of partners came to pass.

After returning from Lyme Regis in the autumn of 1804, the Austens left Sydney Place, and went to Green Park Buildings, which had been among the houses first considered. They were here when Mr. Austen's death occurred in January 1805; and then Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved into lodgings in Gay Street.

Mrs. Lybbe Powys gives us a lively word-picture of Bath in 1805--

"The Dress Ball, Upper Rooms immensely crowded at ten; but the number of card parties quite spoilt the balls, as 'tis fashionable to attend five or six before you go to the room. It was endeavoured to alter these hours, but fortunately for the old people, and those who drink the waters, it was not permitted, and at eleven, if in the middle of a dance, the music stops. But I suppose 'tis reckoned vulgar to come early, one sees nothing of the dancing or company for the crowds. The rooms are not half so agreeable as they were some years ago, when the late London hours were not thought of; and how prejudicial must they be to the health of all, is very visible in the young as in the old. . . . Sixteen thousand strangers at Bath in the season 1805!"

Of Bath itself we hear in the satirical skit called The New Guide--

"Of all the gay places the world can afford,
By gentle and simple for pastime adored,
Fine balls, and fine concerts, fine buildings and springs,
Fine walks and fine views and a thousand fine things,
Not to mention the sweet situation and air,
What place, my dear mother, with Bath can compare?"
There is little reason to doubt that Jane would thoroughly enjoy the change afforded by such constant opportunity for diversion, such delightful mingling with a crowd in which her bright humour must have found frequent opportunities for indulgence.

As we have seen, she had written her first Bath book, Northanger Abbey, many years before, and while a she sat in the Pump Room, awaited a partner in the Assembly Rooms, or shopped in Milsom Street, she must have recalled her own creations, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, Henry Tilney and Mrs. Allen, quite as vividly as if they were real persons of her acquaintance.

The second Bath book, Persuasion, was not written until many years after, yet these two, chronologically so far apart, topographically so near each other, have always been, owing to conditions of length, bound together.

This is Jane's own account of her first ball after coming to live at Bath: "I dressed myself as well as I could, and had all my finery much admired at home. By nine o'clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the Kooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple, think of four couple surrounded by about an hundred people dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath! After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies."

It is interesting to compare this with her account of her heroine, Catherine Morland's first appearance:

"Mrs. Allen was so long in dressing, that they did not enter the ball-room till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr. Allen he repaired directly to the card-room and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protegée, Mrs. Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, ns swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend's to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly. But to her utter amazement she found that to proceed along the room was by no means the way to disengage themselves from the crowd; it seemed rather to increase as they went on; whereas she had imagined that when once fairly within the door, they should easily find seats, and be able to watch the dances with perfect convenience. But this was far from being the case; and though by unwearied diligence they gained even the top of the room, their situation was just the same; they saw nothing of the dancers, but the high feathers of some of the ladies. Still they moved on, something better was yet in view; and by a continued exertion of strength and ingenuity they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench. Here there was something less of crowd than below; and hence Miss Morland had a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her, and of all the dangers of her late passage through them. It was a splendid sight, and she began, for the first time that evening, to feel herself at a ball, she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room. . . . Everybody was shortly in motion for tea, and they must squeeze out like the rest . . . and when they at last arrived in the tea-room . . . they were obliged to sit down at the end of a table, at which a large party were already placed, without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to except each other. After some time they received an offer of tea from one of their neighbours; it was thankfully accepted, and this introduced a light conversation with the gentleman who offered it, which was the only time that anybody spoke to them during the evening, till they were discovered and joined by Mr. Allen when the dance was over.

"'Well, Miss Morland,' said he directly, 'I hope you have had an agreeable ball.'

"'Very agreeable indeed,' she replied, vainly endeavouring to hide a great yawn."
But poor Catherine was much more fortunate in her second essay, being introduced to Henry Tilney, the hero, who captivated her girlish admiration, and who at last, struck by her naïvété and earnest affection for himself, fell in love with her and made her his wife.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane places the Thorpes in Edgar Buildings, which she always spells "Edgar's," the Tilneys in Milsom Street, and Catherine Morland with the Aliens in Pulteney Street. Her topography is always very exact and unimpeachable. Milsom Street also plays a large part in Persuasion. It is here that Anne comes across Admiral Croft looking into a print shop window, from whence he accompanies her back to Camden Place where her father and sister are, and in the course of the walk Anne learns, to her infinite relief, that Louisa Musgrove is engaged to Captain Benwick, so that the terrible thought that she might hear any day of her engagement to Captain Wentworth is dispelled for ever. In Milsom Street also, while sheltering in a shop from the rain, she first sees Captain Wentworth after his arrival in Bath, and on his coming accidentally into the same shop with some friends, both he and she are unable to hide their signs of perturbation. But it is at a concert in the Upper Rooms that Anne goes through far worse disquietude, while, with the tormenting uncertainty of an undeclared love, she sits wondering whether he will come to speak to her or not.

It is at the White Hart Inn, which overlooked the entrance to the Pump Room Arcade, that the real crisis of the book takes place. Here Anne, on coming to spend the day with her sister Mary, Mrs. Charles Musgrove, who is staying there with her husband, finds Captain Harville and Captain Wentworth. It is her conversation with the former that reveals to the latter her own unchanged feelings, and gives him the courage to write her a letter declaring once more his own love, after the lapse of many years. Anne is thereby rewarded for her gentle loyalty, and when in going up Union Street with her brother-in-law she is overtaken by Captain Wentworth, and handed over to his charge, mutual explanations are made and mutual happiness reached.

Certainly to the lovers of Jane Austen's books these characters people the Streets quite as vividly as any flesh-and-blood persons who have ever lived in them.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.