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:
My #BreakfastWaffle thoughts this morning are why on God’s Green Earth are #Radio4 persisting with the #PuzzlefortheDay? That in itself is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. I’m a cheery soul at sun up but even I am strained by the #BreakfastWaffle of these tangled thought processes. I’ve never been much of a puzzler. I’ve marvelled at my dad unpeeling a cryptic crossword, four down, nine letters: mountain snowdrop anyone*? I don’t sit down and thrill to puzzles. They seem more like a punishment. I feel certain that puzzles are written into Dante’s Inferno, that what Judas Iscariot is really staring at for all eternity is the possible answers to the Puzzle for the Day on Radio Four.
Even as a child, riddles left me cold because, in the end, they always seemed contrived and stupid. They just masqueraded as clever with their glib responses of : ‘The answer’s a lemon’ or ‘No, it’s a toad because it was Thursday’. Good grief.
I harbour disagreeable feelings towards these puzzlemasters and it irks me. I don’t want to feel like that about people. There is a terrible whiff of smugness about the puzzles and also, I feel, a lack of reality. Who cares how many times the polar bear won at chess? I’m not asking for reality, far from it, I love a story, stories have been my life. Perhaps that is what I’m asking from them, a heart and soul. My problem with the puzzles is they ring hollow. So, when John Humphries, with his ‘kill me now’ tone of delivery asks ‘If the train is running 3.17 minutes late at Hereford and there is a Leicester blueface sheep on the line at Craven Arms, will Professor Moriarty arrive in Ludlow before Sherlock Holmes?’ The answer is yes, he bloody well will because he’s Professor Moriarty and he’ll get off the effing train and take the station masters bike, but, actually NO, HE WON’T. The reason he will not arrive in Ludlow before Sherlock Holmes is because Sherlock Holmes IS DISGUISED AS A SHEEP AND IS ON THE LINE AT CRAVEN ARMS.
Pass the teapot, Watson and put down that last scone, it’s mine.
Did you deduce the answer is *avalanche? If so reward yourself with a free book by signing up here: http://www.helenslavin.com/signup/ Mwhahahaha, turns out I’m as wily as the good Professor.