“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?”
~Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
If like me, you can’t visit Bath during the annual Jane Austen festival -I desperately would love to attend!- don’t worry! You can still get into character and spend the day pretending to be Catherine Morland. Catherine is the bookish heroine of Jane Austen’s gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. She arrives in Bath to be introduced to society and therefore spends her time at all the appropriate social places. So ladies, slip your book into your bag, pull on your best maxi dress and a pair of ballet flats, and and stroll casually towards the Assembly Rooms.
Bath Fashion Museum
For purposes of post length, I wrote about the Bath Austen Centre in a previous post, so I’ll assume you’ve made that your first stop. If you haven’t, do start there. It’s always easier to get into character if you’ve got some background about the time period which you’re aiming for. Your next stop should be the Fashion Museum housed in the basement of the Assembly Rooms. Here you’ll be able to see clothing worn in Bath starting from the Georgian period and continuing to the present day runway fashions and celebrity dresses. You’ll also learn how trends in clothing fabric, prints, and cuts are entwined in global and political trade. In the middle of the experience you’ll find the dresses and shoes from the Regency period, Austen’s time. This era appears to have been a turning point for more practical dress for women. You’ll notice that the hoops have begun to disappear from dresses and they look very similar to that maxi dress you’re wearing. You’ll also notice that the ballet flats on your feet look suspiciously like the ladies shoes of Austen’s 1800’s. If you feel the need to further get into character for your day, you might try the dress-up station. Those dresses are probably just as unwashed and gross from all the tourists as the dresses must have been in Austen’s time!
They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney.
~Chap. 3, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Assembly Rooms (the Upper Rooms)
Now with some understanding of the background and context of both the author and the character, you’re ready for your day on the town! Head upstairs where you can step into the Assembly Rooms. In Austen’s novels, these community function rooms were referred to as the “Upper Rooms.” There was a similar set of rooms, referred to by Austen as the “Lower Rooms” that once stood near the location of Bath’s Abbey, but those no longer exist today. In these rooms, society would meet and mingle, attend concerts, dances, and gamble. When Catherine visited the rooms, they were so crowded that she had to hold on to her friend for fear of being separated. This must have been exhausting. It’s no wonder then, according to our free walking tour guide, ladies often retired across the hall in the “Tea Room” -where they perhaps added something a little stronger to their tea. And while ladies wore hoop dresses, they would remove their hoops to enjoy some informal dancing. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a concert or function in the assembly rooms today.
The Royal Crescent
After tiring of the Upper Rooms, head uphill to Bath’s Historic Royal Crescent. You’ll probably recognize this row of townhouses if you’ve seen any of the film adaptations of Northanger Abbey or Persuasion.
I highly suggest going into the historic house museum at #1 Royal Crescent. You’ll have to do a little time traveling from the Regency era to the Georgian era, for which the home has been decorated and furnished, but it’s totally worth it.
Everyone survive their temporal shift? Good. All this time hopping can make one a bit peckish for afternoon tea, so it’s probably time to head back downhill to The Pump Room. (The Austen Centre does have a tea room, but if you’re going to have a proper Austen day in Bath, I suggest holding off for afternoon tea at the Pump Room.)
Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one.
~Northanger Abbey, Chap. 3, Jane Austen
The Pump Room (Afternoon Tea)
One common misconception about the Pump Room is that it’s too pricy. If you just want afternoon tea and a pastry, you can get just that for a reasonable price. And honestly, how many times are you going to be in Bath having yourself a Jane Austen day? (If your answer is actually “many”, then I’m insanely jealous of you.) Allow yourself to splurge a little.
Catherine and her new found friend Isabella spend their time at the Pump Room discussing “horrid literature” while pretending not to notice the stares of eligible young men. It was the place to be seen and to see those of any consequence who had arrived in town. According to our Free Walking Tour Guide, visitors signed the Pump Room guest book in order to see who had arrived that required a social visit and also to find appropriate marriage partners for their children.
I gathered a few of the ladies from my Open Palace Programme group for afternoon tea so as to have someone with which to discuss “horrid literature.” So if you can, find a friend to accompany you. Ignoring the fact that we were surrounded by a hundred other tourist families rather than eligible young men, we had a lovely time.
I had a lemon poppy seed drizzle cake AND a fresh scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam because I just couldn’t make up my mind! And a teapot of black tea of course. As we were eating, live musicians began playing at the front of the room. It couldn’t have been any better! And I made sure to sign the guest book before I left. You know, just in case.
Visit the Shops
After tea, you’ll want to walk off those pastries, so it’s a good time to visit the shops. Unfortunately, you may not be seeing Bath as Jane did because at that time there were fewer buildings. The Bath streets would have felt more spacious and elegant. However, there are so many quaint shops today that I’m sure you won’t even mind. And, if you find yourself by the river, why not find a seat where you can slip that book out of your bag for some quality reading time? Your feet must be tired. Ballet flats aren’t actually the best walking shoes, but one must suffer for fashion, no?
Plan Your Visit
*If you visit the Fashion Museum & the Roman Baths you can get a discount on a combined ticket.