by Shari Randall
Ah, Bath! Although I enjoyed the beauty and history of this ancient English city, those attributes were not the primary attraction when I visited in December. For me, the thrill was walking the cobbled streets of a place Jane Austen lived, a place that she featured in several of her books, a place that shaped her personality and worldview.
Jane had lived with her family for twenty-six years in the quiet village of Steventon when her father, the Reverend George Austen, decided to retire to Bath. Though she lived in Bath for only five years, from 1801 to 1806, her observations and experiences shaped the stories she wrote and provided settings for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
In Jane Austen’s time, Bath was the resort city, the place to see and be seen, a place to display one’s wealth, a class-conscious fashion show, which Jane found fascinating, ridiculous, and exclusionary. Jane’s family’s aristocratic connections opened many doors to her, but her clergyman father’s small income meant that in most settings, she would be the poor relation. It’s easy to see how Jane created characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, two people wrestling with the challenges of their different social positions.
Jane and her family visited Bath several times in the latter 1790s—one trip was for her sickly brother George to try the baths and see that newfangled invention, electricity—but in 1801 her father decided to retire there. Her father’s sudden and unexpected death just four years later left the family in financial straits, and they made two moves in the city, each to successively less expensive quarters. Finally, Jane, her mother, and sister, Cassandra, had to move back to the country to live with family in Chawton Cottage, Hampshire.
|Waxwork Jane with real, living doorman.|
On a cold, rainy day, I left my husband warm and happy in a pub and joined the mostly female mob outside the Centre. Standing at the door was a jovial doorman dressed in Regency regalia—top hat, cut-away coat, breeches, and riding boots—and a life sized wax figure of Jane. The wax figure is based on a watercolor that her family thought looked nothing like her. Fans of all nationalities and ages posed for photos with the statue. I imagine Jane would have found the scene amusing.
A docent in a long, yellow Regency dress gave an informative introduction and then we in the mob were free to walk through the house at our own pace. Exhibits showcased the dress and customs of the time, including a chart that finally explained what characters mean when they say “he has 700 a year.” (Seven hundred pounds was the yearly income at which a person could afford a carriage, a very important status symbol.)
So little is known of Jane Austen. We’re not even sure what she looked like. But so many crowd the museum, so many love the essence of the woman revealed in her work.
Have you ever visited the home of a favorite author?