Tracing Jane Austen’s steps through Bath
On the first Jane Austen Detectives outing to Bath, we were privileged to be shown around by Bath’s most engaging Jane Austen Walking Tour guide, Moira Rudolf. We recorded our experiences at the time in the post ‘Where Mrs Smith Bathed…’
Now, all ardent Jane Austen Detectives will be pleased to know that, since January 2014, Moira is able to offer her own independent tours of Regency Bath. Options include both public walks and private tours tailored to your personal interest in Bath and its famous residents.
To give you a taste of Moira’s interests, knowledge and wit, the Jane Austen Detectives talked to her about Bath, Jane Austen, and the beneficial exercise involved in exploring the endless diversions of the Georgian town. JD: Your background is in architectural history, and your excellent sense of place is what brings Jane Austen’s Bath to life on your walks. How did you come to combine your passion for Jane Austen with your professional interest in architecture?
MR: The two strands almost grew up together….
I first fell in love with Bath at the age of five when, returning from some dismal family holiday in Minehead, my father – who was obsessed about being unable to park – refused to stop the car and drove straight through. I cried when I saw the magnificent enfilade of buildings receding through the back window.
‘I’ll be back!’ I thought.
Sometime in the late 1970s, in Bath on a ‘special holiday’ with my first boyfriend, having already read all of Jane’s complete novels, I stumbled across Bath Old Books, Margaret’s Buildings, where I purchased several unassuming publications about Jane’s time in Bath, of which I was then completely ignorant. We retreated to The Kennard, Henrietta Street, read the books, examined the locations, took photographs, and then I forgot all about the fascinating connection until much later….
….post-1982, in fact, when following my first degree, History of Art, and inspired by the 1981 Postgrad Museum Studies Students’ Exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, I elected to do further research on their chosen subject: ‘Thomas Harrison of Chester, 1744-1829’.
Harrison – Palladian Neo-Classicist – was well aware of the work of the Woods of Bath and their introduction of good building practice. That led me back to Bath when I felt it incumbent to ‘think myself’ into the time by reading whatever – fact, fiction, newspapers – ‘my architect’ might have read. So, I came to reconsider Jane Austen and Bath. And then I tried to think about Bath – via Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – as it was through Jane’s eyes.
JD: As one of the few prominent non-fictional settings of her novels, Bath is strongly associated with Jane Austen, but she disliked living there. How do you reconcile these issues in your tours? Which portrayal of Bath do you prefer – that of Northanger Abbey or Persuasion?
MR: I believe this statement to be over-simplified. There is evidence to suggest, via Jane’s letters, that when staying with elder (hypochondriac?) brother Edward for six weeks from 17 May 1799 at 13 Queen Square, she found the city stimulating and a refreshing change from her quiet – admittedly conducive to writing – routine in the Hampshire countryside.
Jane waxes lyrical about Sydney Gardens, shares her knowledge of shopping and fashions and performs various commissions for family members. This did not mean, though, that Jane was happy with the move; staying in a dearly-loved holiday spot is very different from living there full-time, as I found to my cost in 2004 when I briefly decamped to St Ives, Cornwall. After all the excitement of unpacking and setting up my new home, I was so horribly homesick that – within a few weeks – I put my little studio on the market and fled. In Jane’s case, the evidence suggests that, given her cheerful nature, she made the best of it. Not that she had any choice….
I personally prefer Northanger Abbey – Catherine Morland’s delight in the city is all too palpable and I greatly enjoy the ‘gothick’ jibes and jokes. I believe, though, that Northanger and Persuasion both document Jane’s attitude to the city (staying with the Leigh-Perrots, 1797; staying with her brother Edward, 1799; living in Bath 1801-1806) at very different periods of her life.
JD: As a fellow Jane Austen Detective, how do you gather material for your walks? Apart from Jane Austen’s novels and letters, what sources do you draw on?
MR: I am an inveterate reader/collector of all sorts of material to do with Jane Austen and Bath. There are numerous rich sources of information, in particular, Fanny Burney’s diaries, 1791 (much earlier than Jane’s stay with the Leigh-Perrots in 1797, but as the ‘New’ Pump Room opened Christmas 1795, this was still newsworthy and relevant); a number of charming ‘travelogues’ including an out-of-print (illustrated) 1901 book on Jane’s homes and friends, and a 1940s one, covering numerous characters prominent in the history of the city. This, I loved so much that – having injudiciously flogged it – I promptly bought it back.
Then there are historical publications relating to the discovery/appreciation/promotion of the thermal waters; contemporary ones on the excavation of the Roman Baths – which Jane could not have known, though it often erroneously features on ‘Austen’ postcards. See, too, guide books/newspaper entries, architectural guides, old maps. There are articles, in particular, from The Bath Magazine and (when I can claim them) from the Mayor’s Corps of Honorary Guides Newsletter.
I also look at Jane Austen biographies of characters Jane would have read about, and retrospective interpretations of the time, for instance, Edith Sitwell. There are some good compilations, too, such as the charming Tales from the Pump Room.
‘The Old Map of Bath’ – a modestly priced leaflet, widely available, is a good ‘short cut’ between the Bath books, what Jane and her characters did and where.
It is also worth looking at the collection of representations of Bath in the plan chests of the Victoria Art Gallery. And, of course, the excellent local history collection in the Bath Library isn’t too shabby! People often forget that Bath was badly bombed in 1942; there are publications detailing the damage. Green Park Buildings East – where Jane briefly lived – no longer exists.
JD: What sights should all aspiring Jane Austen Detectives ensure they see on a visit to Bath, and which are your personal favourites?
MR: This is a difficult one, as there are so many places in Bath, easy to find and identify, which are strongly associated with Jane and her characters. I could write a book on this.
The absolutely must-see sights are:
The Pump Room which once housed the book of arrivals and departures from Bath, and still houses the Tompion Clock, under which Mrs Allen, Catherine Morland’s neighbour and friend, met Mrs Thorpe, mother of Catherine’s false friend, Isabella, and settled down to talk about the merits of lace-making. Although there is no evidence that Jane had any faith in the curative qualities of the naturally-occurring hot mineral water, which can still be sampled, she accompanied her uncle Leigh-Perrot there for his second glass of the day, and will have seen the King’s Bath – which can still be viewed from the rear lobby. Other bathing establishments – The Cross Bath and Hot Bath – both likely to have been used by Jane’s elder brother Edward – are close by, as are the remains of Westgate Buildings.
The Assembly Rooms – my top favourite building – with its magnificent suite of Ballroom, Card Room and Tea Room, is closely associated with Catherine Morland, Mr and Mrs Allen, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth; Jane knew it well as the Austens were subscribers.
I could go on for pages, but there is also the Gravel Walk – renewal of Anne Eliot’s and Captain Wentworth’s understanding – Crescent Fields, below the Royal Crescent – strangely she never set any scenes in The Circus, though she had acquaintance there. And, I don’t want to miss out her favourite Bath residence, 4 Sydney Place, or one of the places she most enjoyed, the then ultra-fashionable Pleasure Garden, Sydney Gardens.
Further information: Moira’s public walks, which are open to all, take place on Wednesdays at 11am and 2.30pm. Walks are priced at £8 for adults, £6 for students and £3 for children.
Her privately tailored group walks start at £40, and arrangements can be made for couples, family groups, hen parties, corporate entertainments, and more. They are available at weekends and on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
You can even arrange to enjoy the company of Lady Russell and the protection of Colonel Brandon on your adventures through Bath.
To contact Moira and to book for walks, please refer to the Visit Bath website.
Anne Eliot, Bath, Captain Wentworth, Colonel Brandon, costume, Lady Russell, Moira Rudolf, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Visit Bath, walking tour.
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