I find it odd sometimes when I stroll around Bath. That’s not to say that the city is odd, far from it, Bath is, as anyone who has ever visited will acknowledge, a serene and beautiful place. Packed with tourists, yes, but genteel and refined.
No. What I find odd is the legacy of Jane Austen.
In Miss Austen’s day the social hierarchy was strict and uncompromising. Academics and the literati often describe Jane Austen’s novels as if they were some delicate piece of embroidery, twee and romanticised. I always find them the opposite. If they are pieces of embroidery they are stained with blood from pricked fingers. The needle that she uses is sharp, the stitches often cross. She is adept at depicting her society, warts and all. There are tough times and hard hearts throughout Austen.
Her own life was not without its low points. Her progress through the city of Bath from Sydney Place to the terrors of Trim Street is a geographical representation of the family’s social decline. In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwoods are evicted from their home on the death of their father thanks to the inheritance passing down the male line. The same fate is in store for the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen lived this. Her cousin inherited Chawton and was kind enough to find lodging for Jane and her mother in the small cottage on the estate. Kind enough. Eventually.
Beneath the costume drama prettiness of bonnets and petticoats there is a dark heart at work. The flashes of light through Austen are always, to my mind, the glint of sunlight on a rapier blade. I think there is a bit of a misconception that because Miss Austen wrote about the middle and upper classes, that somehow that isn’t as tough as being dirt poor and therefore is somehow less worthy, less real. It was all too real for Miss Austen and her family.
In her lifetime Jane Austen was neither famous nor rich. At one point she suffered a fate of many writers, and certainly female ones, in being robbed of her rights and royalties by a publisher, a turn of events which befell the Bronte sisters some years later.
I don’t have to imagine the machinations, the social politics, the snobbery of her life in Bath, she has put it all on the page for us. No one in the city would have thought Miss Austen and her family to be of the slightest consequence. She was neither pretty nor rich and intellect and imagination were not considered commodities of any great worth in her lifetime, certainly not if you were female.
What I find odd is that in the 21st Century Bath is Jane Austen’s city. Of course the Romans have their part in the proceedings, hovering in the corner there with the Baths and Sulis Minerva keeps a watchful eye. Reference is made, here and there, to Bladud and the ancient history of the restorative hot springs, but the engine of Bath, in terms of tourism, is Miss Austen.
She has her own museum and tea rooms. Her image is to be found all over the city. There are tours of ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’. Only the other week I dragged my daughter up Sion Hill to Lansdown Place on our very own Jane tour. I walk in the streets where Jane walked, strolling up to Beechen Cliff although she would not have known the Victorian houses that crowd around there now. Each September there is a Jane Austen Festival involving a Promenade through Bath where Spencers and breeches are the order of the day. If you can time your visit for this it is worth it, a real spectacle, people of passion putting care and detail into their historical garb and all, all mind, in honour of Miss Austen.
The oddity for me is that I wonder what she might have made of it all, not simply the success of the books and the lasting love that her readers feel for her characters, but the actual commercial enterprise that is Austen’s Bath. She owns the city in many respects. She is an interwoven part of its history, outshining even that most illustrious of personages, Beau Nash.
She might look up from her work, perhaps, with a wry smile.
The thing about cats is they remember they were Gods. They don’t really care if you remember this fact, for they will not forget it and will adjust their behaviour accordingly.
We had two cats when I was growing up. The first, Snowy, pure black fur of course, had a temperament that owed more to temper than anything else and consisted of snarling, scratching and a propensity to bring home big game. Where other people’s cats popped a gift of mice or the ever popular vole on the doormat, Snowy would drag home war torn badgers, dead dogs, muntjac deer. In the end he proved no match for the traffic.
Sophie was a true goddess cat, sleek and calming, her favourite place to sit was on my dad’s shoulder as he played the piano. His heart broke when she too failed to practice the Green Cross Code.
I did not wish to own a cat as an adult and my children, now in their 20s feel they have had a deprived childhood. ‘We never had any pets’ my son moaned the other day and I reminded him of the cannibal hamsters. I wonder who cleared up that skeletal little mess? Hm? No, sorry, the delights of a cat litter tray were not on my household agenda. My husband didn’t want a dog either, he does not see the appeal of poop-scooping or fleas. We caught fleas once from my mother in law’s dog. She insisted it was the other way around. Lovely.
Instead the brats have had to make do with second hand cats. There was a tortoiseshell type one, very pretty, that they used to feed scraps of chicken and ham to on occasion. Our neighbour’s cat is white and requires no extras as it manages on all the blackbirds it can scoff when I’m not pursuing it with a water pistol.
They lounge about, cats. They swagger and stroll their way through the neighbourhood, parading along my fence as if there are no boundaries. In our old house we were visited by a half feral monster that I called One Eyed Jack. If I left the kitchen door open he would wander in at will and stare at me with that scarred eye until I left, or made an offering, a chicken leg, a haunch of venison, something small and godworthy.
The other day I looked out and almost fell over. There was something swanning around by the raised beds. It was tall, probably a foot high and it had lynx ears, the ones with the crossed spikes of fur. It was grey but that doesn’t really cover the depth of this colour, it was blueish in the sunlight, the deep rich hue of Welsh slate in the shadow. The fur itself was fluffed and extravagant, I’d even use the word flamboyant. I have never seen such a huge cat. It wandered for a while, prowling for the wood pigeons who, for once, had more sense than to get down from the fence. The cat decided to get onto the fence. There was a flurry of wood pigeons and the cat did an impersonation of Blondin, patter footed, tail, extreme fox style brushy tail, flicking with perfect balance and timing. It loped onto the shed, possibly an unwise move since all that is holding up the shed is the cobwebs and the ivy. It sat there for some time surveying its kingdom, as Gods do.
I had to google it of course. It turns out it is a Maine Coon Cat, a rather expensive specimen going for something north of £800.
She doesn’t pop in very often but when she does I generally bow and give up my seat on the bench.
Or hide in the summer house, whichever is quicker.
This glorious pic is by Robert Sijka, check him out:
It’s #DyingMattersWeek this week and it is also the week that my mum would have turned 80. If she’d had the chance that is.
I think about death a lot, pretty much since the day my mum died. Losing someone will do that to you, bring into sharp focus something that we look away from. I dislike people who say we should ‘face up to death’ and be more pro-active about death. We shouldn’t. There’s a reason we ignore it, it’s horrible. Anyone who has ever sat at a deathbed knows how horrible. I’m not just talking about the physical process, I mean the emotional toll being rung.
We could also start in on an discussion about souls (I believe in them. Totally. Don’t argue with me.) but that’s jumping the gun.
What I mean is that we don’t need to be harping on about it in a patronising self-help manner. I think that most people who chant this slogan have not yet lost anyone. My feeling is that we should treat death the same way our ancestors did, with respect. In a throwaway society we’ve also thrown away heart and spirituality and by that I don’t mean organised religion. I never mean Organised Religion, which for me is up there with Organised Crime. Organised is not a word I have a lot of truck with.
People should be allowed to die how they wish to, from assisted suicide to the simple act of being at home. At the hospice my mum was faced with a doctor who asked her ‘What do you see at the end of this illness?’. My mum responded ‘I see me getting better and going out and enjoying myself.’ The doctor’s reply, for which I have never forgiven him, ‘What do you see at the end of this illness?’. There was a brief silence and then my mum turned to my dad and said ‘Can we go home now?’. My dad took her home within 24 hours and she died there a week later.
What we have to do is care. It is that simple. We have to stop being efficient and businesslike and slow down and look at the place and the time and recognise humanity.
Funerals should not be such an industry although I have to say I quite like the idea of being borne away in my wicker coffin by a plumed horse on a black bier. It’s certainly dramatic but, as my daughter said to me the other day “ I don’t want to come to your funeral. It’d be miserable.” She’s not wrong.
I have no memory at all of my mum’s funeral, I recall only the hearse pulling up and my dad folding my sister and myself into a deep hug. Then I woke up as they say. It was still a nightmare. My mum was still dead.
Funerals are as stupidly expensive as Mulberry handbags or season tickets to Manchester United. There is, I suppose, a health and safety aspect to it all, you can’t just chuck everyone in the river as they do in India as this causes health and disease issues. We don’t want cholera and typhoid back, that’s being just a bit too close to the ancestors. Equally it shouldn’t be an industry, one that penalises those who can ill afford it.
My husband has decided he wishes to be left to medical science so that he can be pickled and pored over by students. If that isn’t possible then he thinks we should be able to put him out with the bins.
My own dream funeral involves a wood somewhere, an ancient one if it can be found, lie me down for the foxes and the crows to peck at so that each of them can take a piece of me out into the world, to feed themselves or nourish their chicks and cubs and no one has to sing a hymn, or eat a ham sandwich that sticks in their grieving mouth like crematorium ash.