Visiting Bath, England, was a treat for this Brit-lit lover because the city has, to a great degree, the same form and appearance that it had in Jane Austen’s lifetime. Its eighteenth-century Georgian architecture and honey-colored Cotswold limestone have been lovingly maintained and an Austenite can walk from Jane’s lodgings at the eastern end of town to the Assembly Rooms or Pump Room following the same streets and taking in the same sights (cars and tourists aside) that she did.
The streets hum with activity as walkers take in the shops, peruse the Roman Baths, stop for tea and Bath Buns, and admire the Abbey. The mind’s eye can easily overlay 2017 with a vision of the past—the outlying farmers bringing their produce to market, the elegantly dressed young ladies out for their morning air, the grandest women riding across town in sedan chairs, or Beau Nash himself (the King of Bath) marshaling the cream of society for a daily round of polite gambling and dancing.
Bath’s most elite citizens at the end of the eighteenth century made their homes on the Royal Crescent: that iconic, gently curved row of stately houses with a wide-angle view of the countryside. Having a Royal Crescent address, or even a house on its sister The Circus, was just as sought-after as the medicinal effects of Bath’s renowned waters. For many of England’s nobility, it was enough just to rent one of these houses a few months out of the year. Others came and, flush with cash, decided to stay. Such was the case at Number One, Royal Crescent, where Henry Sandford of Ireland lived from 1776 to 1796. Number One is a house museum today, restored and decorated as it would have been during Sandford’s years in the house.
Number One Royal Crescent is one of the better-presented house museums that I have visited, including many of my favorites here in the U.S. The house appeared to be professionally cared for and in tip-top shape. I was interested to note the many similarities between Number One and the houses from the same period that survive in Charleston—the architecture, furniture, and attention to fine, classical details. It is obvious that Charleston’s wealthiest residents were connoisseurs of English taste and lived in just as high a style as their counterparts in England. The docents in the museum here were, however, the best part of the house. An elderly (I’m assuming volunteer) lady was stationed in each room, supplied with fun facts and ready to answer questions. Each one was cheerful and gracious, just as you would imagine an English lady to be, and all together they left a wonderful impression on me.
Of course, my imagination was also piqued here because it was only a few short decades later that Jane would have rubbed shoulders with occupants of houses like Number One. The interiors looked like a BBC costume drama and there was a pianoforte in one room fit for Georgiana Darcy. However, I learned several startling things about that time period while visiting the house that forcefully reminded me that the past is a foreign country. Think, for example, of the chamber pots kept in each room of the house (I used to think they were just for, well, bedchambers). There would have been one in the dining room, of all places, behind a screen. Fortunately the men would have waited for the women to withdraw from the room after dinner before using it, but they still had no reservations about using the pot while continuing a conversation with their friends. The women who needed to use a chamber pot had to return to their bedrooms, where they would have needed the assistance of their maids to sit down on one. Then—there was the meat rotisserie in the basement kitchen, operated by a captured stray dog. Opinions wavered as to whether this was cruelty or kindness, since the dog would have been fed well in payment for his labor. I was also confronted in the kitchen with the lack of refrigeration, or really even an icebox, and the terrible question of what did they do with their food? I guess you would have had to eat up—because the leftovers won’t be any good tomorrow!
I found a fun book along these lines while I was in Bath—Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The Adkins follow English men and women, rich and poor, from birth to death, as Jane would have found them. While some sections were dry and fact-laden, others were intriguing and even at times appalling or downright hilarious.
I laugh to read of the “smock weddings,” where a bride could appear naked or in her shift to make plain that she brought nothing to her marriage or to release her groom from paying her debts, and of wife-selling, the easiest way for the poor to “divorce.” As a mother, I shudder as I read about dangerous birthing practices and infant and mother mortality rates, and I have to scratch my head at the common practice, even in Jane’s family, of fostering out infants “until deemed old enough to return home.” What? And then I have to be thankful for modern sensibilities that allow for women and poor people to be educated; in the nineteenth century I would have been way out of my place as a woman. My stomach turns at the lack of personal hygiene and heads filled with lice and at the idea of not wearing underwear.
There are aspects of Jane’s world that are attractive, such as the quiet, the slower pace of movement, and even the thought of sharing books around the evening fire. I also admit I like her time-period’s taste for classical beauty in its art and architecture. Yet after a day spent wandering Jane’s Bath, I was thoroughly grateful to eat fresh, tasty food, take a hot shower, and throw myself on a clean bed in an icy, air-conditioned room.