For a while now Kate and I have been trying to arrange a trip to Bath; our first attempt spectacularly failing due to a failure to find last-minute affordable accommodation, and with neither of us having plans this Saturday gone, we made a last-minute decision on a day trip to Bath and in particular, a trip to the Jane Austen Centre.
On arriving in Bath I took Kate on a mini tour, showing her the Royal Crescent, visiting No. 1 Royal Crescent which is a restored Georgian house owned and managed by the Bath Preservation Trust, the Circus, Milsom Street, the Abbey and Roman Bath’s before heading to the Jane Austen Centre.
Located at 40 Gay Street, a few metres down from a house that Jane Austen lived in for a few months in 1805, the Jane Austen Centre offers an insight into the Georgian & Regency era’s Austen’s novels are set, her time in Bath and her two novel’s set in Bath; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
A Little History
Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children of George Austen and Cassandra Austen and was born in 1775 at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire where George Austen served as rector. For the most part, Jane was educated at home after two attempts at schooling, first in Oxford in 1783 and later in a boarding school from 1785 to 1786, the limited financial resources of the family and six brothers meant there was little money available to send both Jane and her elder sister Cassandra to school. Jane and Cassandra were enthusiastic readers, with unrestricted access to their father’s extensive library and were encouraged by their father to take an interest in writing.
Between 1787 and 1800, Jane began taking a serious interest in writing, initially poetry then short stories, before writing her first short novel ‘Lady Susan’ between 1793 and 1795. In 1795, Jane Began writing what would become ‘Sense and Sensibility’, called ‘Elinor and Marianne’ which she read to her family as a series of letters before and during 1796. In 1795, following a failed romance with Tom Lefroy, Jane began writing ‘First Impressions’; a first draft of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. On its completion , Jane returned to ‘Elinor and Marianne’ producing a second draft with a great number of changes, in particular a new third person narrative. Jane then went on to write Susan, a novel that would later be revised to become Northanger Abbey.
In 1800, Jane’s father George Austen announced he was to retire from Steventon and move the family to Bath. Between 1801 and 1804 the Austen family rented a house on Sydney Place, located near what is now the Holburne Museum of Art and the Sydney Gardens that Jane would often frequent. When the lease expired in 1804, the Austen family were forced to find alternative accommodation and moved to Green Park Buildings, which no longer exist. A few months after their relocation to Green Park, George Austen died leaving Jane, Cassandra and their mother without an income, forcing them again to relocate several times before quitting Bath altogether in 1806. During this period, the Austen women first rented rooms at 25 Gay Street, just down from the Circus and up the road from what is now the Jane Austen Centre. After six months of living on Gay Street with money running out, the women moved to Trim Street in a cheaper part of town. After deciding they could no longer afford to live in Bath, the Austen women first went to live in Southampton with Frank Austen and his wife. In 1809, they were offered a large cottage at Chawton, part of their brother Edward’s large estate, left to him by his adoptive parent’s.
Jane Austen’s time in Bath was relatively unproductive with little writing done, except for the start of a new novel ‘The Watsons’ about a family of four unmarried daughters with their poor invalid clergyman father. Jane abandoned this novel after her father’s death due to her change in circumstances, which resembled those of her characters. Following the move to Chawton Jane returned to her writing, redrafting ‘Elinor and Marianne’ into ‘Sense and Sensibility’ which she was able to get published by Thomas Egerton in October 1811. The popularity of this novel by “A Lady” – Jane choosing to remain anonymous – led to the redrafting and publication of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in January 1813. Before Jane Austen fell ill and died in 1817, she managed to publish ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and Emma (1816) as well as write a new novel ‘The Elliots’ (later ‘Persuasion’) set in Bath, and begin an additional novel Sanditon which she was never able to finish. Prior to the publication of ‘Emma’ in 1816, Jane met with the Prince Regent’s librarian who suggested she dedicate ‘Emma’ to the Prince; a fan of her novels, evidence that she was known by some to be the author of her work. After her death, her brother Henry Austen published ‘Northanger Abbey’ a reworked version of ‘Susan’ along with ‘Persuasion’ – the two “Bath novels” accompanied by a biographical note, officially identifying Jane as the author. After a year of good sales, over 300 copies of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion went unsold and were disposed of in 1820. Between 1820 and 1832/33 Jane’s novels were out of print until Richard Bentley acquired the copyright to all of Jane’s novels and began republishing them, and since then her work has remained continuously in print.
After purchasing tickets for the exhibition at the Jane Austen Centre, you head to a waiting area on the first floor where you can view a smaller exhibit based upon the two adaptations of Persuasion, both filmed in Bath and where a dress worn by Sally Hawkins (Anne Elliot, the heroine of the story) can be seen.
After waiting in the waiting area until quarter-to or quarter-past the hour, you are then guided into a larger room for a brief talk about the Jane Austen Centre and of course the life of Jane Austen. Once this has concluded, you will be guided back down to the ground floor and into the exhibition held in the building’s extension.
When first entering the exhibition, you pass by three portraits of Jane Austen; a copy of an unfinished portrait of Jane by her sister Cassandra, a drawing of Jane made based upon Cassandra’s drawing, and a silhouette. The real portrait of Jane by Cassandra is housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
After the portraits, there are a set of regency costumes on display; a lady’s, a gentleman’s and children’s. Next there is an exhibit showing the naval uniform of Jane Austen’s brother Francis.
Naval officers play a key role in Persuasion; the second of the ‘Bath novels’, with Captain Wentworth, Admiral Croft and Captain’s Harville and Benwick being integral to the story.
Next on the exhibition was, very appropriately, an exhibit of the fashionable Regency pastime of ‘taking tea’.
Next in the exhibit is a short video about Jane Austen and Bath, and in particular about Persuasion, presented by Amanda Root who played Anne Elliot in the 1995 adaptation. After the video has concluded, you walk around the next half of the exhibition, including information about Tom Lefroy, with whom Jane had a brief romance and a mock haberdashery; Thorp’s.
Visitors are able to try on some Regency era clothing, with the help of Jane Austen Centre employees, clothing for visitor’s use is hung on a rail towards the end of the exhibition.
Beside the rail of clothing is a door and corridor leading to the last two rooms of the exhibition including a writing room, before exiting back into the gift shop.
The Tea Room
The “Regency Tea Room” is located on the second floor of the Jane Austen Centre, specialising in ‘Afternoon Tea’. Walking in, much like the rest of the Jane Austen Centre, you will be greeted by the tea shop staff dressed in Regency clothing and seated at one of the tables. On the wall opposite the fireplace there is a painting of Mr Darcy, from the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, this of course was a favourite feature of the room for Kate, who wanted very much to steal the painting for her wall at home.
After being seated you will be offered the menu of afternoon tea, snacks and drinks, including a substantial selection of tea, from which we [naturally] chose the Jane Austen blend. If you purchase anything from the gift shop or buy tickets for the exhibition, you will be given discounts on selections from the menu. We decided on Tea with Mr Darcy, but without champagne, costing £12.50 for one person or £23.50 for two.
‘Tea with Mr Darcy’ consisted of sandwiches of smoked salmon, cheese, cucumber and ham, along with two scones which were quite literally the softest scones I have ever eaten and a selection of cakes. The tea was included in the price and consisted of loose tea leaves with an extra pot of hot water.
After finishing as much of the tea and food as possible, we headed back down to the ground floor and back out onto Gay Street, heading towards the Bath Assembly Rooms which were once a social hub for high society and are now owned by the National Trust.
The Gift Shop
The gift shop sells a variety of Jane Austen memorabilia from Regency inspired clothing, jewellery and apparel, home ware including tea sets and tea towels and of course, a great number of books. The books include various different editions of Jane Austen’s novels as well as books about Bath, Jane’s time at Bath, Jane’s life and modern spoofs, sequels and adaptations of her work.
I have only been to Bath once before this weekend’s trip for a wedding in June 2011, but I made a point of walking around as much as the city centre as I could, taking in the Georgian architecture and Bath stone clad buildings. Once I have relocated to Cardiff, which is forty-five minutes away from Bath by car and one hour away by train, I will definitely make regular trips to the city, visiting each attraction, writing about each attraction and buying copious amounts of tea from the Tea House Emporium, located on New Bond Street.
I will now finish with photos of some of the other visitor attractions on offer in Bath.
- http://www.janeausten.co.uk/ – Jane Austen Centre
- http://www.bath-preservation-trust.org.uk/ – Bath Preservation Trust
- http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/ – Roman Baths
- http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bath-assembly-rooms/ National Trust owned Bath Assembly Rooms
- http://teahouseemporium.co.uk/ Tea House Emporium