London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Jane Austen's House and Bath

25/11/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 22479 votes

The world of Jane Austen: stately ancestral homes, horse-drawn carriages, and country lanes; the furtive glance, the lowered gaze, the fleeting smile – all the nuances of upper-class society in Regency England. A keen observer of people, this accomplished author wrote not of faraway places, but of the life she knew. Through her works (of which Pride and Prejudice may be the most famous), we meet sweet-natured heroines and dashing heroes who dance their way through the parties and balls of the early 19th century and off the pages of these enduring books.

We can almost hear the soft violin music, rustling satin gowns and quiet laughter. And this all unfolds in a setting of everyday life with only the subtlest of references to what is transpiring on the high seas – the raging battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

It was our first trip to England, and we arrived in London with an itinerary sprinkled liberally with destinations associated with Jane Austen. We were excited about the opportunity to travel to the places where this famous novelist had lived or visited, and they were not far from each other and, moreover, not far from London. Even London offers one such site: Jane’s brother Henry was a banker living in London, and she enjoyed attending the theatre and art exhibitions while visiting him in Covent Garden at 10 Henrietta Street, now marked with a plaque.

But our first destination was the village of Chawton and the home that was Jane’s for the last eight years of her life and where she wrote (or rewrote) all six of her novels. Now a museum and aptly called Jane Austen’s House, this unassuming red-brick cottage is filled with many of her former possessions – a patchwork quilt made by Jane, her widowed mother and sister Cassandra (the three inhabitants of the house); the Wedgwood dinner set purchased by Jane and her brother in London; and a collection of letters written by her, to mention just a few.

Winchester Cathedral

We enjoyed wandering through the rooms, both upstairs and down, and outside in the garden, where Jane’s donkey carriage is kept in the old bakehouse. Although the orchard is no longer there, this was the garden about which Jane once wrote her absent sister, with characteristic wry humor, “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.”

It was only a short drive for us to the city of Winchester where Jane, extremely ill, spent the last several months of her life, moving to 8 College Street behind Winchester Cathedral to be near her physician. She died in 1817, most likely from Addison’s Disease, and was buried in the cathedral. The nave of this magnificent cathedral is the second longest in Europe, St. Peter’s in Rome being the longest, and we spent some time here exploring the cathedral. Eventually we found Jane’s burial place beneath a stone slab in the North Aisle, with a brass memorial on the wall nearby.

Lyme Regis Coast

Our next “Jane Austen stop” was to be Wilton House near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Jane’s father (a clergyman) and her mother were rather the “poor relations” of both their well-connected families; each had numerous relatives living on vast, impressive estates, thus explaining Jane’s presence at upper-class social events. One of the Treasure Houses of England, Wilton House was on our itinerary not only because it was typical of the manor houses she frequented, but it also was the location of the filming of the ball attended by the Dashwood sisters in the movie “Sense and Sensibility.” However, losing our way several times, we arrived five minutes before closing time and were unable to take the tour.

The next morning we drove to Lyme Regis, the historic seaside town where Jane and her family went on holiday on several occasions. They lodged at a large house called “Wings,” no longer there but marked with a small memorial garden. A dark sky overhead on an atmospheric day, we followed the winding street down to the rocky coast. We could see the famed Cobb, a massive stone wall jutting out into the sea, built to protect ships in the harbor.

The Pump Rooms

This is where Louisa, the main character in Jane’s Persuasion, suffers a dramatic fall and is “taken up lifeless.” Legend has it that the poet Lord Tennyson, an ardent fan of Jane’s novels, visited Lyme and said (referring to a historical rebellion), “Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the steps from which Louisa Musgrove fell!”

We had several days scheduled in Bath, the fashionable town and health spa where Jane lived after her father’s retirement. Perhaps it was the Austens’ decision to sell their library of over 500 books and Jane’s own pianoforte, but for whatever reason, Jane resisted the move. She disliked Bath, preferring village life, and did little or no writing during the four years she spent here. Unlike Jane, we fell in love with it at first glance. At least to the eye, a great deal of Bath remains unchanged from the 1800s. We walked through Victoria Park and saw the graceful arc of the Royal Crescent.

The Roman Baths

We walked through Abbey Square and into old Bath Abbey. The Pump Room sits above the hot springs that feed the famous baths, and the water from the springs, supposedly blessed with “healing powers,” can be sampled from the ornamental pump. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch among the potted plants and chamber music of this stylish place, much the same as it was in Jane’s day.

According to her letters, she spent a good deal of time here, as it was a popular social gathering place. We then toured the baths, discovering that the great Roman Bath itself was not unearthed until 1878 when a city engineer was investigating a leak under the King’s Bath. This was sixty years after Jane’s death.

It was Jane Austen herself who said that a reader in possession of a good book gains further pleasure from knowing where the author lived and found inspiration. We felt this to be true after our little journey into her world, and we were much better acquainted with this writer whose works have remained popular for nearly two centuries and who put pen to paper with such skill and elegance.

Candice Caster

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