As Bath’s celebratory Jane Austen Festival makes a welcome return, guest blogger Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen and There’s Something About Darcy, reveals what we can look forward to and what makes this Austen extravaganza so special.
Bath’s Jane Austen Festival is back! After a year full of waiting and cancellations, finally fans can get their fix of Jane again.
This year’s Festival runs from 10th-19th September and marks the 20th edition. The festival has grown and developed over the years. It began with a few select evenings based around the music, history, and costumes of the Regency period, alongside a celebration of Austen’s works. Based out of the Jane Austen Centre, it is now a series of annual events, including the grand balls, run by the centre staff and a team of loyal volunteers under the directorship of Jackie Herring. Across ten days in September, there is every possible type of entertainment for the Austen fan, diehard fanatic, history buff, and literature connoisseur.
You can have a day trip to Hampshire on the trail of Austen’s home, enjoy a dance workshop, laugh along with comedy troupes as they perform improvised versions of her stories, and even attend a talk given by me! This year, my topic is the Anatomy of an Austen Novel (The Mission Theatre, 17th September) on what makes her work so effective and how you too could discover a writing style of your own.
The Grand Costumed Regency Promenade is the record-breaking highlight of the opening weekend. Since the festival’s beginnings there has always been a costumed promenade. To take part you do have to dress in Regency-era clothing, but there is plenty of advice and information amongst the Friends of the Festival.
That’s where the inspiration and legacy of Austen really come into play – the friendships that are formed at the festival. I have experienced the connection with many attendees from all over the world. Even if it’s just for a day or half a day, you are guaranteed to meet like-minded people and you might become firm friends.
People visit from all over the world. Each year, pre-pandemic, the numbers increased, and the range of countries grew: Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Japan – from all across the world fans come to honour Jane. It really is a tribute to her wisdom and wit, the global appeal, and the longevity of her writing.
A wonderful example of a global friendship is that of Cass Grafton and Ada Bright. Cass is based in Europe, first Switzerland and now the UK, and Ada calls California home. They met in chatrooms and then in person at the festival. From there, their mutual creativity took hold, and they began to co-author stories – whilst living in different hemispheres, yes, but they made it work. Since then, they have published two novels together: The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen (2018) and its follow-up, The Unexpected Past of Miss Jane Austen (2020). The stories are exciting and quirky and rooted in the Jane Austen Festival. They reflect the foundation of Cass and Ada’s friendship.
Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm with Cass Grafton and Ada Bright
There are more influences that arise from the Jane Austen Festival. This year at the Mission Theatre, I will host an Austen writers’ panel (17th September) with a range of different writers from across genres. They all have one thing in common – Austen is their inspiration and the festival has helped to form their material.
Drama, historical fiction, personal memoir, and literary fiction have been composed thanks to the Austen Festival. There is a special magic about the location in Bath and the chance of catching a glimpse of someone in Regency attire rounding the corner of Sydney Place or strolling along the Royal Crescent. Could that be Austen, herself? That magic was the inspiration for Cass Grafton and Ada Bright when they penned their fantasy-Austen-time travel adventure with the festival as the backdrop.
My own experiences at the festival began with the publication of my first book on Austen, Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen (Intellect, 2015). I had the privilege of speaking at the Mission Theatre in 2014. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to speak at the Theatre Royal and the Old Theatre Royal on Orchard Street. The Old Theatre Royal, we know, is where Austen went for entertainments.
There, I hosted a talk given by Simon Langton the director of the BBC 1995 Pride and Prejudice. This is considered the definitive version by many readers and fans of Austen. Of course, ample anecdotes about Colin Firth were the subject of the day! At the end of the packed-out event, the audience stood to give Simon a standing ovation. No one was more astonished than he, and he leaned over to me and asked, ‘Why are they doing that?’ I had to tell him, ‘They love your work Simon, it means so much to them.’
This warmth and friendship that abounds at the festival is felt by everyone who attends. It has a unique atmosphere and with a trip to the city in September you can be part of it. Even if you simply wish to walk in Austen’s footsteps, you are guaranteed to see the festival attendees in Regency dress. You can enjoy the atmosphere of the promenade for free if you are there as a 21st Century observer. Or you can browse the stalls at the Festival Fayre (11th September, £3 on the door) in the surroundings of the grand 18th Century Banqueting Hall at the Guildhall, for all your Georgian and Regency fashion accessories and haberdashery.
Whatever your literary or entertainment tastes might be, you can time travel in Bath back to the Regency period in September this year.
Historian, author and Jane Austen aficionado Diana White reveals what treats the city of pleasures held in store for our favourite novelist in September.
It’s September 1801. The season is changing, the nights are starting to draw in again and there is a hint of chill in the air. But as Jane enters her new home, 4, Sydney Place, the house that will become one of the most famous literary residences in England, she is filled with the anticipation of a new chapter in her life now that she's living in Bath, the city of pleasures.
As she walks up the stairs into the elegant drawing room, she looks across at the famous Sydney Gardens, one of the centres for Society in the city and somewhere she eagerly looks forward to exploring. The trees are beginning to turn but the fairy lights in the trees twinkle enticingly and her heart lifts in delight at the prospect of the promised entertainments.
In the bedroom she’ll share with her sister, with its views across the woods and fields to the distant hills, she unpacks her trunk, bringing out her ball gowns, fingering the silk and soft muslins and wondering… Jane is just returned from her holiday in Sidmouth and there’s a sparkle in her eyes. Who will she meet at the Assembly Balls… who will she dance with?
But there are other pleasures, like the Theatre Royal, the most important theatre outside London. Will she see Sarah Siddons, the leading actress of the day? Jane has loved the theatre since she was a little girl helping with the theatricals her family put on in Steventon. Everything about it, from the smell of the greasepaint and the flickering lights in front of the painted scenery, to the thrill of the rising curtain and the plays themselves. Comedies, pantomimes or tragedies, they’re part of a world where she can lose herself in the stories they tell, just as she can lose herself in the stories she writes.
Bath is a city of expectation and hopes, and Jane is now part of it.
Discover Jane Austen's Bath on our fascinating guided walking tours. Learn more and book your place here
As more seasons of Netflix hit Bridgerton are confirmed, we asked our guest blogger Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm (author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen and There’s Something About Darcy), to tell us about spotting Bath locations, the books the series is based on, and the enduring appeal of 'Regency Risk'
Julia Quinn's series of Bridgerton novels have taken the world by storm. Set between 1813 and 1827, they are a fond, artful and respectful re-working of Regency Romance and Austen-inspired novels and they follow a great conceit.
The novels are a series of eight about the children of the Viscount Bridgerton. They follow an alphabetical structure: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Each aristocratic offspring gets their own adventure. There are follow-up tales and prequel stories, but the ones that Quinn is best known for are now in the hands of Shonda Rhimes and the Shondaland TV Production Company, responsible for Gray’s Anatomy and Scandal, among other series.
Steamy and exciting, the first adapted novel The Duke and I (Daphne’s Story) came to Netflix on December 25th, 2020. A welcome, and slightly scandalous distraction at Christmas for pandemic-weary viewers around the world. There could be no greater escapism.
Regency Romance as a genre really came into being at the turn of the 19th into the 20th Century. There’s something about the 100-year time span that appeals to people’s taste for a bygone age. Perhaps that is why the BBC's Downton Abbey has been such a hit over the past decade? When the Great War loomed in 1913 the grave outlook gave many authors the urge to switch to historic escapism. Whilst Austen endured in her popularity, the world of literature began to expand with more Georgian and Regency tales with their dashing heroes and feisty heroines.
That was the great formula – a little sexual frisson and a lot of scandal! ‘Regency Risk’, as it’s known in literary circles, allows authors to pinpoint certain social and romantic rules that the early 19th century was known for, and break them. Abduction and seduction scenarios, for example, became popular in 20th century romances based in that period. These arose from the situation of heiresses who could be compelled into marriage if they were caught up in a scandal, such as spending a night alone with a man. Georgette Heyer used this scenario in her first Regency romance, Regency Buck (1935), which also features Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent as characters. The heroine, Judith Taverner, is preyed upon by fortune hunters and royalty alike, and ultimately abducted by her cousin who hopes to force her into marriage. (Spoiler alert! She is rescued in time.)
The opportunities for women with slightly increased social mobility in the early 19th century, coupled with the imposition of strict codes of behaviour amongst the middle and upper classes, give the Regency years of the early 19th century a special kind of tension that has appealed to writers ever since. It’s part of the quality that enables us to enjoy Austen’s writing two centuries on. As a contemporary social satirist, she saw this tension as a great resource for creating dramatic storylines.
That was the great formula – a little sexual frisson and a lot of scandal!
Now, Julia Quinn exploits the escapist historic perspective and includes further ingredients to bring the world of the Bridgerton family to life. They live in Regency London, but the reality of history stops there. The action is held together by the anonymous gossip-writer Lady Whistledown (voiced as a narrator on the TV show by Julie Andrews). Quinn weaves together the stories of the Bridgerton siblings and their unswerving love and loyalty for each other and, along with Shonda Rhimes, brings an alternative, re-worked vision of the period to the screen.
Chris van Dusen, the Bridgerton showrunner, responded to the questions about cast, character, and historical accuracy with: “[the show] is a reimagined world, we’re not a history lesson, it’s not a documentary. What we’re really doing with the show is marrying history and fantasy in what I think is a very exciting way”.
The Bath Connection
History, fantasy, and excitement can all be encountered in person in Bath. The list of locations used by the Bridgerton team is only growing with the confirmation of Seasons 2, 3, and 4 in early 2021. In addition, there will be a new series specially created to tell the back-story of Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel).
Abbey Deli, Bath
On the Abbey Green, then, can be found the Deli where the ladies of the ton have their dress fittings as it plays La Modiste dress shop in the series. Both the exterior and the interior are used as locations, along with the other shop fronts. Visitors can now enjoy delicacies and specialist blends of tea named after their favourite Bridgerton character. The exterior shop fronts on Trim Street are also recognisable from the show, where Gunter’s Teashop witnesses the courtship and heartbreak of Daphne and the Duke of Hastings.
As of May 2021, the location crew have been seen outside the Holborne Museum with shooting underway for Season 2. The exterior of the Museum on Sydney Place, opposite Austen’s former home, is now known as the grand home of Lady Danbury (played by Adjoah Andoh). It is an outstanding building and now a feature of the show.
The Holborne Museum, Bath
The Royal Crescent is a star in its own right, of course, and has been the backdrop for many period dramas. No. 1, the Royal Crescent, is digitally enhanced for the show but still recognisable as the Featherington family residence. The exteriors of the Guildhall, The Assembly Rooms, and Beauford Square all double for Georgian-Regency London.
The Royal Crescent, Bath
The City of Bath echoes the architecture and style of ancient Rome, of Venice, and of Athens, with its neo-Classical style. The city itself is a pastiche and a homage to other cities, therefore. The worship of the harmony and perfection of classical architecture can be felt everywhere and enable the enjoyment of a walking tour. It seems only appropriate therefore that the flair and the fantasy of Bridgerton have found a home within the lovely locations of Bath.
Discover Bath on one of our guided walking tours - find out more here
It’s May 1801 and Jane Austen is in Bath staying with her uncle and aunt. Historian, author and Jane Austen aficionado Diana White reveals what our favourite novelist was doing as spring arrived in our beautiful home city.
Jane is just twenty-five, still an attractive young woman and hopeful of romance, and Bath, with its Balls, the Theatre Royal, its promenades and pastry shops, and the extravagant displays and public breakfasts in Sydney Gardens, is a marriage market for the unattached.
Assembly Rooms Ballroom Copyright - Bath Tourism Plus
Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra about her adventures in Bath, and it is these letters that tell us how Jane was spending her time. First on her list is a shopping expedition as she needs a new ball gown. Clothes are very important as they show your status and Bath is a shopaholic’s paradise. Both elegant Milsom Street and Old Bond Street feature in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (you can still see the pretty curved windows of the original shops and follow in the footsteps of the characters who walked there today), but these are the haunts of the rich; Jane must find a linen draper where Indian muslins and Spitalfields silks can be bought more cheaply for her gown.
May sees the end of the season in Bath, but there is one last Ball in the Assembly Rooms and this is when Society will see Jane in her new gown. How proud her Uncle must have been escorting his niece into the Rooms lit by hundreds of candles in the magnificent crystal chandeliers. People are thronging the Little Octogen greeting each other, and Jane boasts to Cassandra how she correctly identifies the adulteress everyone is talking about! In the Grand Octogen, the whist tables are being set up for the chaperones, and the Tea Room is busy taking orders for refreshments. And when the dancing begins, Jane pins up her train and forgets everything except the pleasure and excitement of being whirled and twirled by her partner, the man who might bring her love.
Photo Jane Austen Festival 2013
Why not discover the delights of Bath in May for yourself on one of our Guided Walking Tours. Find out more here
Jane Austen is a great writer. We accept that, right? It’s a given, isn’t it? But just what is it that makes her so special? We asked Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, guest blogger and author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen and There’s Something About Darcy to share her thoughts
Jane Austen's output resulted in six completed, published novels, composed over twenty years. She died at the all too early age of 41. A collection of incomplete manuscripts and novel fragments she left offers us a chance to speculate as to the direction in which her work was moving. (Probably in a more satirical direction!)
And so, Austen is a great writer. Even her detractors, some of them famous such as Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain, have always had to admit that her achievement is admirable, even if they did not enjoy the end product. Her books have always been in print, translated into dozens of languages, and she has only risen in popularity over the past few decades. But why? What makes her so good? What is so special about Jane Austen?
Jane Austen by James Andrews, watercolour c1869, private collection
So often, in literary culture and in the consideration of reputations and legacy, a lot of assumptions are made about an author’s talent and the reasons for their longevity. Where Austen is concerned, we are sometimes encouraged to think that her fame is not based on literary merit. Giles Coren, Times columnist and broadcaster lent his support in 2017 to the tradition of disparaging Austen for being out of touch, dull, and just a writer of romances for women. He even went so far as to produce a documentary on the subject to coincide with the bicentenary of her death as a counterbalance to the lavish, and in his view undeserved, praise that had been heaped upon her, calling her work: “ … a tawdry glimpse into the bored life of a long-dead Hampshire spinster making up love stories about imaginary facsimiles of herself.”
To paraphrase Austen herself from Mansfield Park: I will let other pens dwell on that baggage, I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can …
Austen’s claim for greatness, and even genius if you are inclined in that direction, is based on the ways in which she crafted her novels. Think of her as being at the intersection of a set of cultural influences during her lifetime. The 18th Century had experienced an explosion of print culture and saw a rise in political pamphleteering, theatre, satire, and the serial novel. It is hard for us to imagine a time in which there was no widespread availability of books. Nowadays, we can just put our hand out to a shelf and retrieve the bestseller of the day in a bookshop or our own home. We can click a purchase button on our devices and immediately read an e-book. Or, even, receive free books as downloads just because there are now no printing costs! Imagine just what a young Austen would have made of that.
Austen took on the influence of the burgeoning 18th Century market and combined that with her love of histories and biographies. How did she have access to these? Her father, the Reverend George Austen, encouraged his daughters to read and make use of his library. In this, she was amongst a minority for her time. Access to books, reading, and theatre was limited to those who could afford it and helped to make her the writer she was. She was part of what was to become the robust 19th Century history of the daughters of clergymen and professionals who managed to turn what they learned from their early reading habits into brilliantly crafted novels thanks this access. George Austen believed in his youngest child’s abilities, and made her a gift of a portable mahogany writing desk that now resides in the British Museum’s collections.
So, what is Austen’s particular skill? What did she bring to the art of the novel that makes her work so enduring?
Whenever you read a novel, you enter into a relationship with its narrator. An author can be distanced from the narrative; aloof, and regarding the world they have created with detachment. In that way they can give something like a universal view; they can be a god-like presence. An author can also be present in the form of a character that performs as their surrogate. This gives the reader a close, intimate relationship with the action. Less universal, perhaps, but just as powerful.
Austen was working at a time when writers were grappling with what constituted a novel. It was a relatively new art form for the 18th Century. With the rise of printing and the wider availability of reading matter, authors told stories – but from whose point of view? If you are familiar with 18th Century novels you will know they were an experimental, wayward, youthful market. Some were told as epistolary novels – in the form of great sequences of letters and correspondence. Some were told as a diary, or the biography of a central heroic figure. From Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) – one of the longest novels in the English language – to Voltaire’s philosophic and satirical masterpiece Candide (1759) – we can see novelists working things out in episodes. Characters might travel and keep a journal, they write letters, they step in and out of their own narratives. And novels were long, serial soap opera-like adventures.
Austen’s brilliance was to help consolidate all these different ways of writing into what Professor John Mullan (What Matters in Jane Austen, Bloomsbury 2013) calls her ‘revolutionary’ contribution to the art of the novel. Austen, he argued in the Guardian (2015), was one of the first writers to manage the ‘alchemy’ of the novel; to combine character, pace, intimacy, and command of the fiction into a world that is utterly absorbing and convincing from start to finish. She credibly handled the ‘self-deception’ of characters such as Emma Woodhouse, so that the whole of that character’s story is one based on ‘the path of Emma’s errors.’ He recognises ‘the first-time reader will sometimes follow this path too, and then share the heroine’s surprise when the truth rushes upon her.’
Austen’s greatness, in Mullan’s words, was to combine the ‘internal and external’ lives of characters and bring in her own authorial voice. This means she is our mediator. She is in the room, circulating among her characters as our guide, nudging us and letting us in on the secret of the gossip or the inner feelings of her heroes and heroines. This is why we like her as a person. She comes across as a character in her own work with whom we would like to have a conversation or share correspondence.
Probably one of the most concise and precise examples of Austen crafting this internal and external existence for her characters comes at the end of Chapter 7 in Pride and Prejudice. It’s a crucial moment; the one in which Darcy realises his deeply conflicted feelings about Elizabeth when she arrives at Netherfield in her muddied petticoat. He is torn between his attraction for her and the reservations he has about her and her family’s conduct.
[Elizabeth] was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.
Austen dips into each character’s internal response whilst allowing them to exhibit the external expression that society demands of them. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley are all politeness, but that veils their inner ‘contempt’. Bingley has no façade or mannered approach; he is totally sincere. Darcy, of course, is deeply troubled. And Mr. Hurst thought only of his breakfast. We rise with Austen as Elizabeth walks in, delicately visit each character and end with a sublime expression of Darcy’s realisation of his feelings, until finally the bubble is burst with Mr. Hurst’s love of breakfast.
We can walk in Austen’s footsteps in her novels as she guides us through her world as a friend and confidante. It is her crafting of prose, her wit, her combination of internal and external voices, and the way in which she makes it feel effortless that makes her so popular. It also makes her a writer’s writer. Whether they like it or not, all subsequent authors owe something to her as a founder of the modern novel.
You might like to watch this short film in which Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores Jane Austen's manuscripts and discusses the significance of her dense handwriting and lack of punctuation. Filmed at the British Library.
Julia Golding is a multi-award-winning children’s author and the creator of the podcast What Would Jane Do? Her latest detective series Jane Austen Investigates launches this month. We caught up with her over Zoom at her home in Oxford to find out why this Regency novelist is still a woman of our times.
ECT: You are an avid Jane Austen fan. When did you first discover her?
JG: Like many people, I first came across Jane Austen as a teenage reader, but I am also a bit of a scholar. I have a doctorate in the Romantic era, which includes Jane Austen, so I had plenty of time to study her.
ECT: And how did she become the inspiration for characters in your books?
JG: When I became a writer, I was looking for a voice for the main character in what became the first historical book I did for kids, The Diamond of Drury Lane. I knew Jane Austen’s juvenile work was very anarchic and funny and I thought that voice – which is close to that very wicked (in the nicest possible way!) voice of her letters – had a lively, contemporary feel to it so I imagined what that voice might be like if it belonged to a character from a lower social class living in London. That character became Cat Royal.
ECT: Jane appears as herself in your latest series – albeit as a young detective rather than a novelist…
JG: Yes. When I came to thinking about doing a new series for kids with the publisher Lion Hudson, it suddenly struck me that she would make a brilliant detective.
JG: Jane Austen has that ability to sum people up. Writers are observers and puzzle-solvers and they are curious about the behaviour of people. There’s also an element of unmasking villains in her novels that has a very detective air to it. Think of Wycombe in Pride and Prejudice and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Then, in the actual world, there’s this whole network of letter exchange, like a super-spy network, between Jane and her friends about who’s doing this and what’s going on here.
ECT: You also have a podcast, 'What Would Jane Do?'
JG: Yes. It started a couple of years ago as a way of combining fact and history with a look at how Jane would have responded to contemporary things. In the first series, for example, I did Jane Austen and Game of Thrones as a way of looking at Jane and the Gothic. For the second series, I’ve teamed up with Zoe Wheddon, author of Jane Austen's Best Friend: the Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd. We’ve done the pandemic, Christmas, and Sex and Bridgerton - in that one we looked at Jane’s novels and the sexual ambition of her characters, and also at what Georgian women would have known. And each week we award the Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins of the week (or Lizzie and Lady Catherine if we're doing a female version). That always prompts some interesting conversations.
ECT: Why do you think Jane is still such a contemporary heroine?
JA: Don’t you think she’s just the best kind of friend? She has an approachable-ness and real humanity. But as well as that, there's her wit. There is a misunderstanding that Jane Austen is a romantic, but she’s not really. She is very clear-sighted about people’s relationships, in fact, and she has this ability to characterise people just through the way they talk.
ECT: Do you hope that the young readers of the Jane Austen Mysteries will go on to read Austen’s novels?
JG: I have no designs upon my reader at all! I’m not coming in with a mission, but for some of them, my books will be their first encounter with Jane Austen and I would like it if they think, ‘oh that book was fun, I wonder what the real Jane Austen did?’
The Abbey Mysteries is out this month. The second in the series, The Burglar’s Ball, will follow in October.
Jane Austen lived in Bath over a period of five years in her twenties. We asked Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm, author of Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, There’s Something About Darcy, to tell us about the influence the city had on the woman and her writings
Jane Austen’s relationship with Bath was an interesting one. It represents the many different personalities of the place: stimulating, complicated, elegant, fun-loving, and exciting. Her time spent in the city was full of charm and sadness and marked one of the most eventful periods of her young life.
Austen was aged twenty-five and Bath, for the middle-class daughter of a clergyman, could offer the chance of marriage. In 1801, she moved into rented rooms at Sydney Place with her parents and sister, Cassandra. Life close to the Bath Vauxhall Gardens and Sydney Hotel (now the Holburne Museum and its surroundings) with firework displays and music recitals, meant that she was right in the heart of the outdoor social scene for the first four years she lived in the city. She enjoyed the public breakfasts, and might have indulged in their hot coffee, black tea flavoured with arrack and lemon, and a new innovation of the age – sandwiches.
Holburne Museum, image courtesy Visit Bath
It is interesting to remember that at this time in her life Austen had already begun composition of some her major works. Pride and Prejudice, with a working title of ‘First Impressions’, was commenced in 1796. Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel in 1811) was developed as ‘Elinor and Marianne’, starting in 1797. So, whilst she did not publish anything when she lived in Bath, she did take on the influences it offered. These later emerged in her writing, with the city as a backdrop to both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, published posthumously as a three-volume work.
No. 4 Sydney Place, Bath
Austen’s bedroom at the top of No 4 Sydney Place gave her a view up the hill to Camden Place (now Camden Crescent). This beautiful, picturesque hilltop crescent was constructed in 1788, but a landslip only a year later saw nine houses at the eastern end collapse into the valley. The empty space where they once stood is now the site of Hedgemead Park. Austen was able to view this dramatically diminished landmark, that had been conceived to rival the Royal Crescent, on a daily basis.
Camden Place, c.1794
Years later, Camden Place appears in Persuasion as the chosen address of the unrepentant snob, Sir Walter Elliot. This vain, superior man, father of the heroine Anne, considers residence in the crumbling crescent to be the height of fashion. Austen’s tone is typically biting and ironic in the novel: ‘… a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence …’. From his perch on the hill Sir Walter believed he could look down on his neighbours, but it was a perch already half-collapsed.
Over five years in her twenties living in Bath, Austen had her faculties for observation honed and her wit sharpened. Her writing was partly a product of this background and experience, all of it very mixed. Bath presented her with great excitement and stimulation, as well as tragedy and loss. In January 1805, her father the Reverend George Austen died suddenly. Of course, this went on to influence her relationship with the city with mingled recollections of enjoyment and sadness. George Austen is buried in the crypt of the church of St. Swithin, at the Paragon, the same church in which he had married Cassandra Leigh back in 1764. The precise location of his grave is beneath the present-day ladies’ lavatories. As Jackie Herring, Director of the Jane Austen Festival once said to me: “The Reverend George Austen, supporting women in death as he did in life.”
The Old Theatre, Bath
To understand Bath’s influence on Austen is to understand the frivolity and precariousness of society, its elegance and façade, the gossip and the performance. Austen knew that social propriety could be the beauty mark over the blemish. In an exciting, complex city she was inspired by the proximity to performance, in theatre and society, and observed where they crossed over. She loved to visit the Old Theatre Royal, on Orchard Street, and the stagecraft and comedy of the great playwright Richard Sheridan inspired her. We know, for example, that she acted in home theatricals of his plays when she was a young girl. She was greatly influenced by the 18th century Comedy of Manners and translated some of that wit and drama into her novels. Pride and Prejudice was also a favourite of Sheridan. He recognised brilliance when he read it.
Bath held much to lure Austen and hold her attention as a bustling urban landscape, but it is well known that she also loved to escape the hurly-burly and pollution and head up into the hills for long walks. She regularly strode up to Beechen Cliff and took the pathways that lead along the Avon Valley to Bathford and Bathampton.
Pulteney Bridge, image courtesy Visit Bath
When Austen lived in Bath, the Industrial Revolution was well underway and the River Avon from Bristol to Bath was being converted in sections into what is now one of the longest navigable waterways in Britain, the Kennet and Avon canal. You can cross the section where the entrance of the canal meets the river at Pulteney Bridge. It is possible to follow the canal and see the neo-classical architecture of the bridges and tunnels that take it through the Sydney Gardens. Or follow in Austen’s footsteps closer to home along the Gravel Walk, something of a lover’s lane in Bath that leads from the City Centre up to the Royal Crescent. Whatever you choose to do you know for certain that you are enjoying the same environment that Austen once inhabited.
Bridgerton, Netflix’s smash-hit series based on the novels by Julia Quinn, depicts Regency England as a place of romance, scandal and the fashionable elite. Set in 1813, the same year that Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice was published, and partly filmed in Bath, our guest blogger and Austen expert Christine Hughes wonders whether Jane would have recognised the settings, fashions and social mores in this fantasy version of Regency England?
The Crescent by John Claude Nattes, 1804
At the heart of Bath’s Georgian architecture is the Royal Crescent, and it is the exterior of No. 1 Royal Crescent that features as Lady Featherington’s house in the series. Whilst it would certainly have been a very wealthy family who could take a house there, the series shows how anyone who wanted to be considered fashionable would promenade along the Crescent, or the avenues of London’s Hyde Park, in the hope of meeting an eligible suitor such as Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings. Jane would often walk along the Crescent after church and it was perhaps on one such walk that inspired her to write how, in Northanger Abbey, the Thorpes and Allens hastened away from the Pump Rooms “to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company.”
In the evenings, attendance at a crowded place such as Bath’s Assembly Rooms or a grand private ball such as Lady Danbury’s, was essential for meeting a promising matrimonial prospect. Elizabeth and Darcy’s infamous first meeting is defined by his aloof behaviour at the Meryton Assembly Rooms. In Bridgerton, Daphne and Simon’s abrupt meeting at Lady Danbury’s ball falls rather short of the decorum of the time as they are not formally introduced.
Holbourne Museum, image courtesy Visit Bath
Holbourne Museum serves as the exterior location for this setting. Jane attended fashionable events such as breakfasts here and lived almost opposite at 4 Sydney Place. Both Bridgerton and Jane’s Bath-based novels show how vital the latest fashions were when attending these occasions. In a style similar to the notorious Lady Whistledown’s society pages, The Mirror of the Graces was published anonymously in 1811 by ‘A Lady of Distinction’ and offered advice on fashions of the day, but also “female accomplishments and manners” and the “rules of proprietary.” It is not hard to imagine characters from both these stories consulting this book when dramatic events unfold!
The Frontispiece of The Mirror of the Graces, 1811
Bath Street is a further setting that offers an intriguing connection between Bridgerton, Jane Austen and those earlier themes of scandal and the fashionable elite. If Lady Whistledown’s society pages sought to expose such material, then the Austen family would have hoped to see no mention of Jane Leigh Perrot, Jane’s maternal aunt, who appeared before magistrates in 1800 accused of the theft of lace from a Bath Street shop. Her story, which was covered by periodicals at the time, offers the same insight as Bridgerton into how members of this society could exercise their privilege in matters of criminal justice, as much as they could in securing the most recent fashions or developing the right acquaintances.
Today, whether we are walking the same streets as Jane did, or seeing favourite Bath locations take a starring role on screen, it is a reminder that all aspects of the Regency era will continue to fascinate us for many years to come.
It was customary to pay a brief call on neighbours or a new acquaintance in the Georgian era and a rigorous system of etiquette shaped these occasions. Upon arriving in the neighbourhood, calling cards were essential for any well-bred gentleman or lady. Typically in town, a potential visitor might remain in her carriage as her card was presented to the lady of the house, who would then consider whether to admit her. A corresponding card might have been issued in return, otherwise it was a signal that the acquaintance would not progress.
A green-tooled Moroccan leather calling card case. The surviving card conveys the details of a Mr Mortimer Rooke of Chippenham
'At Home Days' was the term given to when these calls should be made, and it was respectable to return calls to visitors and neighbours who had left cards. For the wealthy, cards were displayed on a silver platter in the hall, with the most impressive names and their reason for calling folded upright and left on display.
In 'Pride and Prejudice', Mr. Bennet must call upon Mr. Bingley so that the families can start to develop an acquaintance. The Bennet ladies wait impatiently for their father to relate the details of Bingley’s elegant household. The visit must be reciprocated before they can visit Netherfield and this time also call on the ladies of the household.
A portrait of Frances Burney by Edward Burney (1782)
Occasional Bath resident Francis Burney, whose novels influenced Austen, wrote how “this perpetual round of constrained civilities... is most provoking.” However, she and her fellow Georgians understood the true value these visits held.
In a genteel society, visiting others and having them visit in return, was a key part of establishing how well-accomplished or travelled you were. It became fashionable to have a cabinet of curios from a Grand Tour or full of fossils from Lyme Regis. Furniture makers and gallery owners would loan out objects to high profile clients such as the Byron family when they took a house for the season, in order to raise their profile and the likelihood of further commissions. Mr. Bingley, only a tenant of Netherfield, would have made use of these services in his desire to demonstrate to visitors that his establishment was one of impeccable taste and respectability.
A Queen Anne corner curio display cabinet. This would have stood in the corner of a library or drawing room, with visitors invited to study the objects displayed inside
Both the people and the objects of interest assembled in these rooms during fashionable visiting hours provided conversation, entertainment and the opportunity to meet new acquaintances and renew friendships.
The opportunity to share our own homes and new mementos of trips out is something we are also looking forward to in the months ahead.
‘There’s nothing like staying at home for real comfort’, wrote Jane Austen in Emma. As the new lockdown see us spending more time inside, we asked Jane Austen aficiando Christine Hughes to tell us how the Georgians amused themselves at home.
In Regency England it was customary for families to have a limited circle of neighbours and acquaintances that they would socialise with regularly. This would involve a variety of indoor social pursuits to occupy their numerous leisure hours throughout the year.
In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley enthuses how ladies, "all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses." These decorative activities, which we recognise as crafts, were essential for a lady's accomplishment. However, they also offered diversion and the chance for personal expression. This is particularly true of the art of making silhouettes.
A Georgian family creates silhouettes: 1800
The traditional black silhouette, made by artists such as John Miers (1756-1821), is an iconic Regency image. One technique was to cast a person's shadow on paper using candlelight. This was then traced, cut out and shaded in with charcoal. King George III hosted elaborate “shade” parties, and creating silhouettes became a popular party activity as his subjects quickly adopted this relatively easy and inexpensive process.
A Georgian gaming table in a sketch by Thomas Rowlandson
Various types of games formed a popular way to spend time together. Cribbage, Speculation and Commerce feature in Austen's novels but she was not a fan of cards, once losing three shillings at Commerce. She and her family were far more enthusiastic about playing parlour games that involved invention and amusement.
Rules were provided in guides such as Miss Revel's Winter Evening Pastimes, 1825. For the 'Twelfth Night' game, it states, "Each individual is expected, for the rest of the night, to conform in speech and manners to the character which Fortune has assigned him. If persons address each other by any but their newly-assumed title, it may be made the subject of a forfeit."
A Regency party playing a parlour game based on 'Twelfth Night'
The literary Austen family also enjoyed amateur theatricals, started by James Austen in 1782, in the dining parlour at Steventon. Years later, Jane featured this activity in Mansfield Park, her lifelong social observations having shaped her adept characterisation.
It is not hard to imagine Georgian families having lively discussions about the organisation and rules of these pastimes, as we still do today. Ultimately, their lasting value lay in the endless opportunities for creativity, diversion and fun, in the time spent with their closest friends and family.