I hope we shall be in Bath in the winter; but remember, Papa, if we do go, we must be in a good situation. (Persuasion, p. 29)
I hadn’t seen my parents in nine months of travel, so I was excited to meet up with them in Bath last May. We were in a very good situation–they’d found a great bed and breakfast for us to stay in, and I settled gratefully into my own bedroom with en suite bathroom after months of shared dorms and bathrooms down the hall. I mean, the woman who owned the house we were staying in made her own soaps. I was using handcrafted soaps in Bath, which actually fits my image of that town perfectly.
In Jane Austen’s time, it was a playground for the rich, a place for fashion, gossip, and soaking in the thermal baths that give the town its name. Today, it mostly trades in tourism, for the baths themselves and for the Georgian architecture that dominates downtown. It’s not the fashionable spot that it once was, but it’s still pretty expensive.
The Roman Baths
We visited the Roman baths on a blustery day, but the surface of the large green pool barely rippled in the wind. This seemed right to me, because for all their atrocious laws and conquest-hungry power moves, the ancient Romans were fine architects, and they built things to last. Why shouldn’t the very water of the place be as still as the columns and statues surrounding it?
Of course, as with most things the Romans stumbled upon, the local people had been aware of the baths for hundreds of years. The Celts built a shrine to local goddess Sulis, and when the Romans built up baths here in about 60 CE, they folded her into their conception of the place, and dedicated the baths to Sulis Minerva. The audio guide and educational texts posted around the baths emphasized that taking the waters was a religious experience for the Romans and locals. They were immersing themselves in sacred waters overseen by a wise and stern goddess.
That doesn’t mean very human concerns didn’t have their place here. The museum displays dozens of curse tablets that were unearthed here–mostly requests for the goddess to inflict severe pain upon whoever stole the supplicant’s clothes while they were in the baths. Some people even helpfully provided a list of names of possible culprits, an extra step which I’m sure the goddess appreciated.
The baths were a marvel of construction, of course; there were steam rooms and smaller pools in addition to the great pool, and an elaborate system of pipes and drains underneath kept it all in working order. No one uses these pools to bathe in anymore, although there are pricey places in town you can visit if you want to take the waters. Apparently people even drink the water sometimes, in an attempt to access those healing powers the sulfuric stuff is known for. I had a sip at the museum and can’t recommend it.
She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her; and Bath was to be her home. (ibid, p. 9)
Jane Austen could have been writing about herself with that line. She disliked the bustle of Bath, but she had to live there a couple different times in her life. I’m willing to call it ironic that the center dedicated to study and appreciation of Austen’s works is based in the town she loathed. Ah well, she might appreciate that irony if she knew.
The Jane Austen Centre is just up the street from Queen Square, so that’s where Mom and I left Dad when we went in to see the exhibition (my dad is an enlightened modern man, but we still haven’t convinced him to like Austen yet). We were ushered upstairs and sat in a Regency-period drawing room, where we listened to a college student in costume give us a few quick facts about Austen’s life in general, and her time in Bath in particular. Then he fielded questions, which was a little tricky, as the audience ranged from people who have only seen the Pride and Prejudice movie, to amateur experts with very particular questions.
The next stop was a too-crowded set of rooms downstairs, which acted as museum display. Our guide said he’d be available for questions, but I didn’t see him again. The focus in these rooms was on Austen’s life in Bath, and on the bits about Bath that appear in her novels. One corner contained a rack of dresses and a box of hats and fans; I have never played dress-up at a museum for adults before, but it was kinda fun.
I liked the last couple rooms the best; in one, the only known painting of Austen was hung, and right next to it, a modern painting, taken from descriptions in letters and journals. The official portrait (by Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra) is, frankly, ugly, and the artist who made the new one justified it by pointing to letters from Austen’s relatives who complained that Cassandra’s portrait didn’t capture Austen’s liveliness or prettiness.
The last room holds some photos from the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, and a charming handwritten letter from Emma Thompson. Also, an inkstand and paper so you can try writing like they did back then. It is hard. You have to write in the tiny, cramped script you always see in original documents; writing any larger just dries the ink out of the quill and leaves a mess.
There are a few independently designed places in Bath–Robert Adam’s Pulteney Bridge and the 16th-century abbey in the center of town come to mind–but for the rest of the city, it’s all John Wood. John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, a father-son team of architects who designed the Royal Crescent, The Circus, and other grand residential places in a neoclassical style. (Apparently, the correct term is Palladian, after a particular architect who revived Greek and Roman styles in the 18th century. The more you know.)
It’s this consistency of design that got Bath listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and while I think I would go a bit crazy if I had to live in a town this uniform in style, it is striking to see, and I can appreciate the harmony of the local yellow stone forming row after row of columns. After all this uniformity, it was all the more surprising to see two front doors on the Royal Crescent painted a different color than all the other front doors. Surely there’s a fine for such an affront to the 250-year-old look!
Upon my word, I shall be pretty well off, when you are all gone to be happy at Bath! (ibid, p. 29)
Yes, Mary, we were all very happy at Bath, indeed.