Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion

"...the first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion."

- letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, May 1801

I am off to Bath tomorrow, to follow in the steps of Jane Austen, who lived there quite unhappily from 1801 to 1806. Jane had no choice in her parents' decision to relocate to Bath from her beloved Steventon, to live out their elderly years in a city which by now was more a popular retirement community than a fashionable watering hole. With no fortune of her own she, like her sister Cassandra, was entirely dependent on her parents and was not even consulted with regard to the move.

Jane Austen was not, by nature, a city person. She delighted in open countryside, small village communities, and the freedom to indulge in long, solitary walks. It is small wonder that she seems to have felt quite stultified in bright, bustling Bath. Certainly she wrote almost nothing new during the five years that she lived there. Creativity requires some measure of routine, contentment and security, all of which were in short supply while the Austens lived in Bath.

The family moved a number of times during their five year sojourn in the city. They stayed first at No. 1 Paragon Buildings, the home of relatives the Leigh-Perrots. From there they looked for lodgings, settling on 4, Sydney Place, though it was more expensive than they had budgeted for. Three years later they were forced to move to cheaper lodgings in Green Park Buildings, where George Austen, Jane's father, died.

Mrs Austen, Jane and Cassandra were now in very straitened circumstances and were only surviving on small dividends from Jane's various brothers. They moved to successively poorer accommodation, first in Gay Street and then in Trim Street, before leaving Bath behind for ever.

Jane's earlier visits to Bath had been much happier and more carefree, doubtless because they were only for fixed periods of time. This attitude is captured in Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland declares

"Oh! Who could ever be tired of Bath?"

This contrasts strongly with Anne Elliott's view of Bath, which seems to accord very much with the author's after living there for five years, of

"Oh! when shall I leave you again?"

My plan is to visit every former home of Jane Austen in Bath, as well as places she would have frequented, as part of my research into her life during this period for my new book, According to Miss Austen. I hope to blog and tweet about my research several times while I'm there.

Finally to walk in Jane Austen's footsteps, even if those steps were not happy ones!


  1. I'm looking forward to reading more about Jane, Jane! I know very little about her other than some of my fav British films-- Thanks for the blog, Kristi

  2. I'm learning lot's about Jane Austen, thanks for all this info Jane. Currently reading Mansfield Park for the first time. What do you recommend for me to read next?