Situated at 40 Gay Street in Bath is a museum dedicated to Jane Austen, her writings and her experience in the City of Bath. All six of Jane’s completed novels mention the city, and two, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, are set in Bath. Although Jane Austen only lived in Bath for a short period of her life, the city had a huge impact on her interests and writing.
Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775 at Steventon, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. She was the seventh child of George Austen (1731-1805) and Cassandra Leigh (1739-1827), who married in Bath in 1764. George Austen was a rector and began taking in boarding pupils at the rectory in Steventon a couple of years before Jane was born. Although Jane attended a boarding school for a couple of years, most of her education came from her father and older brothers.
Jane had seven brothers, James (1765-1819), George (1766-1838), Edward (1767-1852), Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Francis (1774-1865) and Charles John (1779 1852), and one sister, Cassandra (1773-1845). For reasons unknown, Jane was the only sibling not given a middle name. Neither Jane nor Cassandra married and relied on six of their brothers for money later in life. The second-eldest brother, George, had little to do with family matters and was sent to live with a relative due to his mental disabilities. References in Jane’s letters to talking “with my fingers” suggests George may have been deaf or unable to communicate verbally.
In late 1797, when Jane was 21, she visited Bath for the first time with her mother and sister. During the six weeks they spent in the city, Jane experienced a different lifestyle from the quiet village life to which she was accustomed. Social events were high on everyone’s agenda in Georgian Bath, which Jane’s letters home described as exciting scenes. “I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am home again – I do like it very much.”
Two years later, Jane returned to Bath with her brother Edward, who wished to “take the waters” to aid his ill-health. The Roman Baths in the city centre were renowned for their healing properties, as was the experimental electric shock treatment provided by local physicians. Jane took the opportunity to learn about the area, which helped form the setting of her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey.
Jane, Edward and their mother stayed at No. 13 Queen’s Square for a couple of months, during which time Jane worked on her novel. She had started writing a book called Susan before coming to Bath for the second time and continued working on it while in the city. Despite selling it to a publisher for £10, the book was never published during her lifetime. After her death, Jane’s brother Henry published it under a different title, Northanger Abbey.
There are similarities between Jane Austen and Catherine Moorland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey. Both young women grew up in the countryside and experienced Bath as innocent, inexperienced girls. Like Jane, Catherine was enthralled by the hustle and bustle of the fashionable city and exclaimed, “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?”
Several notable locations are mentioned in Northanger Abbey, which Jane experienced during her first two visits to the city. Catherine Morland met her love interest, Mr Tilney, by the River Avon in what is now known as the Parade Gardens. This was the location of the Lower Assembly Rooms in Jane’s time, to which she referred in her novel. Catherine attended services nearby in Bath Abbey and visited the Pump Room daily. “As soon as the divine service was over, the Thorpes and the Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent.“
The Royal Crescent is one of the most iconic sights in Bath, as is the Circus, which was built between 1754 and 1756. Jane had friends living in the round circle of terrace houses, so it was only natural to refer to the area. Jane also mentioned the Upper Assembly Rooms, where she enjoyed attending dances and performances. The fictional Catherine also visited the Rooms for similar entertainment. Today, it is the location of Bath’s Museum of Costume.
In 1801, Reverend George Austen surprised his family by announcing his retirement and decision to move to Bath. They moved to 4 Sydney Place, a recently built Georgian townhouse in the Bathwick area of Bath. The nearby Sydney Gardens supplied public breakfasts, which Jane regularly attended. The breakfasts included tea, coffee, and rolls, and towards midday, they served Sally Lunn buns, followed by music and dancing. During the summer, galas were held in the gardens in honour of the King and Prince of Wales’ birthdays and the annual Bath races. During Austen’s time at 4 Sydney Place, André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823) took off from the gardens in his hot air balloon in September 1802. Garnerin was well-known for his balloon demonstrations and visited Bath as part of his tour of England.
The Austens remained in Sydney Place until the lease expired in 1804. Her father quickly sought cheaper lodgings, and the family moved to No. 3 Green Park Buildings East. Jane often complained about the dampness in the building but still declared it was “so very desirable in size and situation”. Unfortunately, Jane’s father died suddenly in January 1805 and Jane, Cassandra and their mother were forced to seek smaller accommodation.
The Austens found temporary accommodation at 25 Gay Street, not far from where the Jane Austen Centre is today. In the summer of 1805, they moved to a cheaper address in Trim Street, a less fashionable region of Bath. Although Trim Street boasts luxurious apartments in the 21st century, in Jane Austen’s time, prostitutes frequented the area. Needless to say, the Austens did not remain there long before deciding to leave the city for Southampton.
Despite witnessing the poorer side of Bath, Jane never lost her love of the city. During her time in Southampton, she wrote Elinor and Marianne, which she published under the title Sense and Sensibility in 1811, shortly after moving to Hampshire. Although the novel was set in Sussex and London, the characters reference their “earnest desire” to go to Bath.
In 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice and finished writing her next novel, Mansfield Park. Both these stories mention minor characters visiting the city of Bath, as does Emma, which was published in 1815. “If she is really ill, why not go to Bath Mr. Weston?”
Nine years after leaving Bath, Jane Austen started working on Persuasion. At the beginning of the story, the Elliot family move to Bath to settle in a cheaper home until their financial situation improves. The protagonist, Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman, is unsure she will like the city but cannot upset her parents by making a fuss. Jane was a similar age when she moved to Bath, but she had already a favourable impression of the city from her visits in her early 20s. To write from Anne’s point of view, Jane imagined how she would have observed Bath and its social customs for the first time as a mature woman.
Several locations in Bath are written about in Persuasion, for instance, Milsom Street, where Anne first meets her ex-fiancé Captain Wentworth in the city. Jane set the encounter in Molland’s sweet shop, which, whilst no longer there, must have held significant memories for Jane. Gay Street, where Jane briefly stayed after her father’s death, also receives a mention. Although Gay Street contained cheaper housing, it still had a genteel atmosphere.
Behind the back gardens of Gay Street is a gravel walk known as Lover’s Lane during Jane Austen’s time. Young lovers used to meet for a romantic stroll along the lane, making it the perfect setting for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to have a romantic encounter. Other locations in Persuasion include Camden Crescent, where Sir Walter Elliot lived. The houses with their position on a hill symbolise Sir Elliot’s lofty views of his self-importance. Dowager Lady Dalrymple and the Honorable Miss Carteret, cousins of the Elliots, lived in Laura Place, one of the most prestigious groups of houses in Bath. Their way of life greatly contrasted with the general public.
Jane started feeling unwell in 1816 but tried to make a start on another novel, Sanditon. After twelve chapters, she gave up and moved to Winchester with her sister Cassandra and brother Henry for treatment. Unfortunately, Jane passed away a couple of months later, on 18th July 1817, at the age of 41. Jane’s cause of death is still debated today due to Jane’s letters in which she made light of her symptoms. The two most accepted diagnoses are Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
The Jane Austen Centre at No. 40 Gay Street focuses on Jane’s relatively short time in Bath. Visitors are given a talk by members of staff dressed up as well-known Jane Austen characters, such as the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and remain in character throughout the visit. The talk covers Jane’s family background, her trips to Bath, the inspiration for her books, and her untimely death.
A short film provides a brief tour of Regency Bath, particularly the locations relevant to Jane Austen and her books. A map of the tour is provided in the souvenir guide, so visitors can explore the area if they wish. The rest of the museum contains images, books and letters written by or concerning Jane Austen. There is also an opportunity to dress up in Regency clothing and pose next to a Colin Firth-look-a-like wax figure of Mr. Darcy. Before leaving, visitors are invited to try writing with a quill pen and visit the Regency Tea Room for tea, cake, scones and sandwiches.
One of the highlights at the Jane Austen Centre is the waxwork model of the author. A small watercolour painting by Cassandra Austen is the only existing image of Jane, but it was described as “hideously unlike” Jane by another family member. Fortunately, there are many written descriptions of Jane’s physical appearance from friends and contemporaries, which the forensic artist Melissa Dring used to bring Jane Austen to life.
Melissa Dring unveiled her drawing of Jane Austen in 2002. Nine years later, the Jane Austen Centre commissioned the portrait sculptor Mark Richards to produce a waxwork model of the artwork. Working with Dring, the hair and colour artist Nell Clarke, and costume designer Andrea Galer, Richards spent three years carefully crafting the model until he revealed it to the world on 9th July 2014. Many visitors to the centre comment on Jane’s height of 5 ft 8 in. Cassandra’s portrait of her sister led people to assume Jane was a short woman, but several accounts record her as “tall and slender”.
The Jane Austen Centre is open every day of the week. Due to popularity, booking is strongly advised with the option of reserving a table for afternoon tea. Adult tickets cost £12.50, but there are various concessions for children, students and the over 60s. Tickets are available on the Jane Austen Centre website.