In Honour of Miss Austen
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.