In the course of a week, I visited three Jane Austen spots—one of which you’ve almost certainly heard of and two you may not have. Since Jane Austen is the subject of (and a major character in) my forthcoming novel First Impressions (Viking 2015), I took a special interest in all three locales, and in a way they represent three very different sides of Austen’s life and literary persona. So, over the next three entries I’ll tell you just a little bit about Bath, Adlestrop, and Stoneleigh Abbey.
My journey to Bath (a drive of about an hour and forty minutes from Kingham) was primarily to attend the Bath Antiquarian Bookfair, one of the largest UK bookfairs outside London. Needless to say, every dealer had his or her Jane Austen stock prominently displayed, for no city in England is more associated with Austen than Bath. This is interesting, because I’m not sure Jane really liked Bath. She was not particularly productive during the years that the Austen family lived there, but she did set significant parts of two of her novels there. More importantly, nowhere in the world will you find such a gathering of Georgian architecture—such quintessentially “Jane Austen” buildings as many have come to think of them.
The bookfair itself was in the Assembly Rooms in which both Jane and her fictional characters attended many events (though presumably no antiquarian bookfairs). The most impressive Jane Austen item I saw was an elegantly bound set of the first collected works, published in the early 1830s, for a mere £12,500. Because both my attention and the space were largely taken up by the books, it was hard to get a real sense of Georgian life in the Assembly Rooms, but luckily I arrived in Bath a little early on a picture perfect morning (never mind that it turned into a dismal afternoon).
My first stop was the newly expanded museum at Number 1, The Royal Crescent. The crescent is one of the two signature pieces of Georgian architecture in Bath—the other being the nearby Circus. Number 1, The Royal Crescent may just be the best Jane Austen spot that has no specific Jane Austen connection. The entire house has been renovated and furnished as a Georgian townhouse of the sort used by the visiting elite during the season at Bath. One can just imagine Jane mounting the steep long staircase at the back of the entrance hall and climbing to the ladies receiving room on the second floor. The view out the windows across the crescent is magnificent. It is unlikely that Jane ever visited this particular house, but she and her characters certainly visited many like it. Recently the museum has been expanded to include #1a, which recreates the original servants’ quarters (think Downton Abbey on a much smaller scale).
I bought a few books at the fair, and I enjoyed the architecture, visited a few galleries, and then made my way back home. Of course there is much more to see in Bath from the pump rooms to the abbey and there is even a Jane Austen center (though if you want the best Jane Austen museum, you’re better off in Chawton). But Bath itself is the real attraction for an Austen fan. Climbing the hill towards the Royal Crescent, one can easily imagine her enjoying the same view and maybe, just maybe, thinking that Bath isn’t so bad after all.
Next up: Adlestrop.