It’s been roughly two years since I posted about having moved to a new town and, surprise, surprise…I’ve done it again. This time I have moved south to the beautiful Georgian city of Bath. Those of you who are familiar with my love of Jane Austen can imagine, I’m sure, how excited I am to be walking the same streets she walked.
Not a stroll goes by without me spying a street name mentioned in Northanger Abbey or recognising a location from Persuasion. And I’ve become rather a pain when it comes to spotting and reading the little historical plaques that adorn the buildings in Bath in which famous men and women have lived or stayed. Only the other day I made my long-suffering other half cross Great Pulteney Street in excess of four times in order to check if any of the plaques mentioned anything about Austen.
I thought, therefore, with the landscape, literally, on my doorstep that it was only polite to re-read Austen’s two novels which are largely set in Bath. Naturally, there is no self-interest whatsoever in my having to read two Austen novels. Cough cough.
Both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are predominantly set in Bath, lucky for me then that they also happen to be two of my favourites of Austen’s six completed novels. I have always been very taken with Persuasion and throughout my reading life it has jostled with Pride and Prejudice for the top spot on my Austen reading list. I find the tone of Persuasion very different to that of Austen’s other novels – it was the last novel she wrote and perhaps the most mature. It seems to me that Persuasion is more true-to-life than her other narratives. Anne Elliott, the heroine in Persuasion, is possibly the most well-rounded, sensible and mature of Austen’s leading ladies. She has a calm and thoughtful narrative voice not to be found amongst the Emmas and Catherines of Austen’s world. I’ve always liked Persuasion as its overarching message seems, to me, to be one of hope. It also celebrates the quiet constancy of men and women like Anne Elliott and Frederick Wentworth.
As for Persuasion’s setting, its heroine is not particularly enamoured with the bustling streets and crowded assemblies of Bath, preferring the quietness of the countryside and the comforts of home. Apparently, the views of Anne Elliott were shared by Austen herself, who it is said, did not like Bath a great deal. Although, it was the backdrop for some sad and trying times in the author’s life. Her father passed away while the family resided in Bath (he is buried here) and, following his death, the Austen family’s income and circumstances were that of steady decline. In a few short years they went from living in a townhouse in a well-to-do area of Bath to smaller and smaller accommodations in less than desirable areas of the city.
As for the locations in Persuasion, the grand regency townhouse which Sir Walter and Elizabeth procure as the Elliott’s home in Bath can actually be seen from my bedroom window! Camden Place (or Camden Crescent as it is now known) seems to me to be the perfect location for the pretensions and self-importance of a man like Sir Walter. His house is situated on one of Bath’s famous crescents, it is of a large size and looks down from its position high above Bath. Much like Sir Walter, the house revels in its haughty viewpoint and Camden Crescent can be looked up to and admired from the streets and parks of the city, far below.
As I’ve already mentioned, Persuasion has always been a favourite of mine. Anne makes for an unusual but endearing heroine. She’s not outgoing, forthright or flirtatious. Instead it is her methodical nature, and the way in which she strives so hard to understand and make allowances for other’s characters and faults that makes Anne so appealing. She is kind and caring and always considerate of those around her. Through her relationship with Captain Wentworth we see Anne far less composed and resigned than her usual temperament admits. Their story is rather a sad one and I won’t spoil it for prospective readers by detailing it here, suffice to say that theirs is a love story well worth reading. It’s not the straightforward girl-meets-gentleman plot of Austen’s other works. You’ll have to read Persuasion to find out whether Austen deems the merits of constancy and hopefulness worth rewarding.
Northanger Abbey is the other of Austen’s novels largely set here in Bath. It is a vastly different story to that of Persuasion; I couldn’t imagine two heroines more different in mind and manners. Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Moreland, is a much younger woman than Anne Elliott. Catherine has had very little taste of society until life quite unexpectedly throws her into the mêlée of Bath. Catherine is a very endearing and likeable character, a naive young woman who is learning the ways of the world and the motivations of people at every level of Georgian society. The streets of Bath prove to be both thrilling and enthralling for Catherine Moreland, having only ever known the society of the small rural village in which she has grown up, the splendours of Bath (a city whose pleasure-seeking inhabitants were chiefly concerned with affluence and entertainment) are a source of ceaseless enjoyment to her.
Unlike Persuasion, Northanger Abbey follows a more traditional Austen plot-line. Northanger Abbey is very much a girl-meets-boy story, but it is also a well-observed and cunningly-written satire. In fact, Northanger Abbey was one of the books I studied during my years at University for its clever parody of a gothic novel. Northanger Abbey firmly proves that Austen is much more socially aware than she is often considered to be. Those critics who dub her novels, mindless, prattling stories about rich, silly young women would do well to read Northanger Abbey. Austen, it would seem, was far more self-aware and intelligent than some give her credit for. Northanger Abbey is written with a deeply knowing narrative voice. From the outset the novel’s narrator addresses the reader directly, beginning by assuring them of Catherine’s unsuitableness for the role of heroine, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Moreland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.” Austen goes on to detail Miss Moreland’s family situation and character and highlights how, unfortunately, they are highly unsuitable for that of a heroine. Throughout the book the novel’s narrator continues in the same tone, appealing to the reader for more suitable characters and events and lamenting the ordinary life that Catherine seems born to live. Alas, she is not kidnapped by highwaymen on her journey to Bath, but arrives quite safely and not even wearied by the long journey. Alas, she does not keep a journal (as a proper heroine should do) where she pours out all the trials and tribulations of her tortured heart. Alas, she does not uncover some terrible gothic secret within the walls of the eponymous Northanger Abbey, instead…ah, but it is here that Austen teaches her heroine a very important lesson and I urge you to read Northanger Abbey for yourself and find out what befalls its unsuitably ordinary heroine.
Despite their very different tones, both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are both well worth reading . Northanger Abbey is certainly the more humourous of the two, but Persuasion is one of the most touching of Austen’s love stories. As for Austen’s depictions of Bath, they are the most detailed you will find of any location in Austen’s work. She gives street names, describes its inhabitants and paints a very vivid and true-to-life picture of what life was like in the city at the time of her writing.
Today the bricks and mortar of twenty-first century Bath are not so very different from what Austen saw over three hundred years ago. Bath stands as a very well-preserved monument to its Georgian architects. One can still stroll idly along Milsom Street, gazing at the latest fashions in shop windows; you can still taste the waters in Bath’s famous Pump Rooms and (once a year) attend a ball at the assembly rooms – which are truly spectacular. I took a walk to the post-box the other day and found myself walking along Camden Place, it felt almost surreal, I had to pinch myself in order to recall that Anne Elliott was a fictional character and that I wasn’t standing outside her front door; never mind, I thought to myself, I’ll go and stand outside Jane Austen’s front door tomorrow.