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BATH, ENGLAND—“For six weeks, I allow, Bath is pleasant enough; but beyond that, it is the most tiresome place in the world. You would be told so by people of all descriptions, who come regularly every winter, lengthen their six weeks into 10 or 12, and go away at last because they can afford to stay no longer.”
Or so Mr. Tilney wryly remarks to newly arrived country mouse Catherine Morland, Jane Austen’s young heroine in Northanger Abbey. Austen, who visited Bath in the late 1700s and lived here from 1801 to 1806, set much of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in this Georgian city, 140 kilometres west of London. Her descriptions of it at the dawn of the 19th century are often amusingly acerbic.
But Bath seems to have forgiven its adopted daughter for her droll jibes. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice (which, like all of Austen’s novels, at least mentions Bath in passing), the Jane Austen Centre is planning a 12-hour “readathon” of the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, which will be broadcast live over the Internet on Jan. 28, the day the book was published in 1813.
In March, the Bath Literary Festival will feature two Austen experts, and, in June, the city will reprise the annual Jane Austen Festival Regency Costumed Summer Ball. But the biggest event is the Jane Austen Festival in September, which holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for gathering the most people in Regency dress (since the early 1800s, one would assume).
However ambivalent Austen’s feelings were about Bath, it’s easy to see what makes it such a favourite among her fans. The streets are lined with beautifully preserved buildings made of honey-coloured stone, many virtually unchanged since her day. Crowds still descend upon the Pump Room for afternoon tea, and Milsom Street remains a hotspot for shoppers, although it’s unlikely Austen ever popped into The Gap.
The Assembly Rooms, where Austen would have attended dances, are as grand as they were then, and the Fashion Museum features displays of period clothing, including the type of white muslin frocks the author would have worn.
And although the Sydney Hotel is now the Holburne Museum, folks still come here to dine, just as Austen attended breakfasts in its gardens. Visitors can even stay across from the museum at 4 Sydney Place — one of the many homes around Bath where Austen lived.
“Because of the way the city has retained its buildings, people can literally walk in the footsteps of Jane Austen — shopping and going for tea and to balls — and look at the views she would have seen 200 years ago,” notes David Lassman, PR manager of the Jane Austen Centre, which draws 60,000 visitors a year.
In the 18th century, Bath had become a fashionable place to “take the waters” — the reputedly therapeutic hot springs that burble up in the centre of town. “But the baths became something of an excuse to holiday here,” Tibbs explains. “There was all sorts going on, from balls to gambling. It drew the wealthy, but also beggars, prostitutes and thieves.”
“Jane didn’t like the people, who were shallow and insincere, concerned with their status in life,” Tibbs suggests. When Austen’s parents announced they planned to move the family to Bath, “she was so upset, she passed out.”
Tibbs is full of these insider tidbits and an expert on Austen-related locations. She shows us where Austen stayed with her brother for six weeks on Queen Square, points out the shop where Austen’s aunt was accused of stealing lace, takes us along the gravel path where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth strolled at the end of Persuasion, and leads us to 25 Gay Street, where Austen lived for a time. “Now it’s a dentist’s office,” she says. “We couldn’t extract them.”
It’s just the sort of quip Austen would appreciate. And perhaps it’s that keen sense of humour, as much as Austen’s poignant observations of human nature and romance, that make her novels as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.
Amy Laughinghouse is a freelance writer based in London. Follow her on Twitter at @A_Laughinghouse.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING From Toronto, AirTransat flies nonstop to London-Gatwick. Air Canada and British Airways fly nonstop to London-Heathrow. From London’s Paddington Station, it’s about a 90-minute train ride to Bath Spa. nationalrail.co.uk
DINING The Pump Room: Jane Austen came here to drink the waters, which are infused with 43 minerals, such as sulphate, calcium and iron. Visitors still sample them today from a fountain. The elegant dining room serves breakfast, lunch and tea, from $ 17. Abbey Churchyard, +44 (0)1225 444477. romanbaths.co.uk. Sally Lunn’s: Located in one of Bath’s oldest homes, the food here is all about the “Bath bun.” Top it with scrambled eggs, cinnamon butter and clotted cream, roast beef, brie or dozens of other options, from $ 11. 4 North Parade Passage, +44 (0)1225 461634. sallylunns.co.uk. Wild Coffee Caf: Near Trim Street, the last of the lanes where Jane Austen lived before moving to Chawton, this artsy caf offers all-day brunch, as well as fish and chips, falafel burgers, and decadent desserts, from $ 14. 10a Queen Street, +44 (0)1225 448673. wildcafe.co.uk
SLEEPING 4 Sydney Place. Sleep where Jane Austen spent her first few years in Bath — although she probably never envisioned the free WiFi and iPod dock provided. The self-catering apartment features a kitchenette. From $ 283 per night; two-night minimum stay. +44 (0)7723 617486. bathboutiquestays.co.uk. The Queensberry Hotel: On Russel Street, close to the Jane Austen Centre, this boutique hotel features sleek, modern decor, a restaurant and a stylish bar. It was named one of Fodor’s Top 100 Hotels in the world in 2011. From $ 150. , +44 (0)1225 447928. thequeensberry.co.uk. Francis Hotel: This hotel, adjacent to the 18th-century townhouse where Austen spent six weeks with her brother Edward, offers an updated, whimsical take on Regency decor. From $ 188. Queen Square, +44 (0)1225 424105. francishotel.com
DOING Jane Austen Centre: An introductory talk, brief film, and exhibitions offer insight into Jane Austen’s time in Bath and how it features in her novels. Visitors can try on period costumes and dine at the Regency tearoom. Reopening Jan. 30 following a mini-makeover to refresh the decor and add more exhibition space. Check the website for details on the Jan. 28 Pride and Prejudice “readathon,” the June 22 Regency Ball and the Sept. 13-21 Jane Austen Festival. 40 Gay Street, +44 (0) 1225 443000. janeausten.co.uk.
Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum: Discounts available when you buy a combined ticket for the Roman Baths. Bennett Street. +44 (0) 1225 477789. museumofcostume.co.uk.
The Roman Baths: Although the Baths were not open in Jane Austen’s day, they’re well worth a look. The museum is filled with ancient artifacts, and the central bath, a steaming green pool surrounded by columns, is striking. Abbey Churchyard. +44 (0)1225 477785. romanbaths.co.uk.
BEYOND BATH Jane Austen’s House Museum: This home, where Austen spent most of her last eight years here, houses her manuscript letters, music books, writing table, jewellery and various family items and furniture. Chawton, Alton, Hampshire. +44 (0)1420 83262. jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.
PandPTours: Offers Jane Austen tours and tours of film locations for on-screen adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and the TV series Downton Abbey. +44 (0)7809 666309. pandptours.co.uk. For maps of Jane Austen’s novels, go to jasna.org/info/maps.html
WEBSURFINGvisitengland.com, visitbritain.com, visitbath.co.uk.