The drum of traffic assailed my ears constantly. The cars’ exhaust collected in pockets of stench that seemed to race around the city competing with noise for a shocking assault on the senses. I’d come to Bath looking for a whiff of the Regency period depicted in Jane Austen’s novels. Instead I found a blurting city that made me want to crawl into a small hole. The only consolation was that, nearly two hundred years before, it had had a similar effect on Jane Austen herself.
People who think they don’t like Jane Austen’s books – that is, people who haven’t read them – associate the author with a rose-tinted view of love and the marriage market. Anyone who has read her books knows better. This was a woman with a finely refined wit, a bubbling sense of humor, and a keen eye for unveiled reality. For those skeptics unwilling to read further (those who still think of Austen as a sappy starry-eyed romantic), let me put the matter of romantic marriage to rest with this quote from Mansfield Park: “In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home … by the misery of disappointed affection and contempt of the man she was to marry. The rest might wait.”
If you don’t find that funny, I give up. But on to Bath.
Jane Austen disliked Bath, a fact I was marginally aware of before making the pilgrimage. She lived there for several years with her family after her father retired, and some critics argue that she found the place so depressing she was unable to work. It is certainly true that her two novels set in Bath do not place the city in a glowing light. Anne Elliot of Persuasion, perhaps Austen’s most sympathetic character, finds Bath oppressive, noisy, and gloomy; while Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey (a satire of the popular romantic gothic novels of Austen’s day) loves everything about the vibrant town – but that is part of her character, a simple and good-hearted, easily persuaded country girl with a bent for romantic literature.
The Bath of the modern day doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 200 years, excepting some expansion and the inclusion of railroads and cars. It’s noisy, and smelly, and makes one want to run away to the countryside. In Austen’s time, Bath was a spa town centered around the Pump Room, where wealthy sufferers of gout drank its foul-tasting waters, and the Roman Baths, whose curative powers were famed. These visitors required shops, restaurants, theaters, concerts, balls, amusement, and society. One modern writer says, “Bath was second only to London as a Mecca for wealthy hedonists.”
In other words, kind of like Miami today. Only with more clothes.
The cream-colored stone buildings that I walked around on my visit look grand and attractive to a modern eye, but at the time they were built must been somewhat similar to ex-urban and suburban developments of modern times: cookie cutter McMansions gobbling up green space. It’s still a nice-looking city, even if jam-packed with tourists, cars, and buses. The Pump Room and Roman Baths are still open to visitors. The Pump Room is now a stylish restaurant, and, although you can walk up to the water counter and taste the famous, practically undrinkable water yourself, there’s not much of a Regency feel to the place where so much intrigue happened in Northanger Abbey and hearts fluttered in Persuasion.
But it’s really the smell and the noise that get you. The stone buildings trap the whining and vrooming of cars among small canyons of streets, bouncing enough high-pitched and thrumming sounds around to give you a headache so penetrating you wish you’d gone to a nightclub to deserve it.
For the smell, blame the geography. Bath is snuggled right down at the bottom of the Avon Valley, which gives it stupendous views of the surrounding Cotswolds hills, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And it is, with that sensation of gentle, fertile, rolling green that makes the English landscape satisfy the nature-lover’s heart right down to her toes. But it also means the city sits under an inversion layer, which traps all sorts of noxious gasses for residents and visitors to breathe. Obviously, there wasn’t any petrol-burning traffic in Jane Austen’s time, but inversions don’t care what kind of pollutants are produced, as long as they stay right where they are. Like the smoke from coal-burning fires, which couldn’t have been pleasant to re-breathe each day.
With all this, can I recommend a trip to Bath? For me, it was a necessity. I’m a rabid Jane Austen fan, and it’s a life goal to breathe in her world, no matter how much it stinks. The architecture of the city is truly stupendous, ranging from a massive 16th-century Norman church back to Roman archaeological sites, and forward to the harmonious 18th- and 19th-century cookie cutters and bridges built using the local golden-colored limestone. The most famous of these is the Royal Crescent, which, brooding as it does over part of the city and its own huge park, is rather overwhelming, if not necessarily beautiful.
At the Jane Austen Centre on 40 Gay Street you can see something of how the great humorist lived. It’s set up as a replica of a house she and her family resided in down the street. And you can sympathize with the country girl plopped into the middle of this great noisy place.
However, it’s a theory of mine that writers write best given adversity. That’s not to say they write best while in adversity. But some of Jane Austen’s best and most incisive work uses Bath and its society as a backdrop. Released from its smell and noise after a few years of not writing much (if working at all), she was able to look back on the time and, like all great writers, get her revenge by showing the place and the people in their true light.