“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
“Hello, I’ll be your guide today! My name is Lydia Bennet.” I’d been staring curiously at the mini-fridge in the corner of the Jane Austen Centre’s First Floor Parlor while waiting for the next tour to start and trying to decide if bottles labeled “Bath Water” were funny, or making me less thirsty. Now I spun around and looked at the girl in Regency garb in surprise. Being familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I wondered… Who would choose to be Lydia Bennet?? And why was Lydia Bennet in Bath? If you’re going to play a character, would you pick the disgraced younger sister to the heroine? Personally, I would have gone with Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Moreland, a character that would have reason to be in Bath (but I might be slightly biased, because she also happens to be the bookish type)! Bewildered, I followed “Lydia” and the rest of the Jane Austen fans who’d arrived through to the next room to begin our education in all things Bath and Austen.
Jane Austen never really liked Bath, and didn’t do much writing while living there. Despite her disdain, Bath has become one of the more popular destinations for Austen fans. Not only did Austen live in Bath for a time, but she also set scenes in the city in several of her novels. Despite recognizing the absurdity of memorializing the author in a place she was happy to leave, I spent some of my free time during the Open Palace Programme, visiting several locations in Bath related to Austen and her brilliant heroines, starting with the Jane Austen Centre.
Learn about Austen & the Regency Period
At The Jane Austen Centre
The Jane Austen Centre is a great place to start following Austen’s footsteps around Bath. The Austen family moved houses several times while living in Bath, so although the family did live in the building that now houses the Austen Centre, it isn’t a historic house museum. It is more of a museum/education center. With little left in the way of furniture or artifacts of the Austen family, the Centre uses short videos, exhibits of artifacts from the Regency period, and hands-on activities to make for an entertaining, if slightly goofy, experience during which you’ll learn enough about Jane’s life in Bath to provide context for exploring the rest of the city as it relates to the author.
Our guide, “Lydia”, gave us a brief overview of Austen’s life before letting us continue to the self-guided downstairs exhibit area. Jane was born in Steventon to farming parents. She had seven siblings, six brothers, and one sister. Jane pursued writing privately while living with her mother and sister, both named Cassandra, throughout her life. She never married, although she did get engaged for one night. She rescinded her acceptance the next morning because, although the unfortunate young man was a good match financially, she did not love him. Therefore, much of her knowledge and inspiration for her male characters came from her older brothers. For example, those that joined the Navy were able to provide her with Naval details she could not experience herself. One brother, George, was unfortunately deaf and mute, and her brother Edward was adopted by relatives, the Knight family of Chawton, because they needed an heir and the Austen family had several to spare. (Apparently that was a thing that happened then!)
According to our guide, Jane became disconsolate and uninspired while living in Bath and wrote the majority of her novels before and after living in Bath. After their father passed away, Edward offered his mother and sisters a house on the Chawton estate (which I will write about later). Jane lived and wrote there until falling ill and untimely passing away in nearby Winchester.
As there have been so many film adaptations of Austen’s books, it was no surprise that the short informational videos the Austen Centre plays are peopled with the actors and actresses that have at one time or another played significant parts in these films. Being a fan of most of the adaptations, I was happy to watch the actors stroll around Bath while discussing the origin of the stories they’d helped bring to life. Some of the men were looking a little more gray-haired than I remember, but no less dashing- even out of costume and in modern clothes. (And for the record, there is only ONE acceptable version of Pride and Prejudice– yes, the six-hour one, and the Sense and Sensibility with Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman will forever be a mistake.) What I was surprised by, was the lack of Colin Firth in either of the two films we saw! The greater shock came shortly thereafter.
The display of Regency period artifacts was minimal, but gave an idea of the sorts of domestic items females would have used on a daily basis. I found the old tea caddy the most interesting out of them all. Not just because the Austen family bought their tea from the well-known Twinings, but because I learned that the key to the tea caddy was worn around the neck of the lady of the house to keep servants from stealing tea because it was that expensive!
The Jane Austen Centre of Bath, like most of the heritage places I visited during my trip, appeals to all ages by having an activities and hands-on section. While I expected the feather ink-pen writing station and the regency dress-up, I wasn’t quite prepared for the photo-op wax figures! By this point, I had realized that the Austen Centre had a little trouble with miscasting. The man at the entrance more reminded me of Mr. McCawber from the Daniel Radcliffe film version of David Copperfield than anyone from an Austen novel, but I think Colin Firth must have made the Austen Centre angry, because the reproduction of Firth’s Mr. Darcy in his famous white shirt was terrifying.
Thankful to escape the creepy Mr. Darcy, I rounded a corner and stopped short. I was face to face with the forensic wax recreation of none other than the author herself. There was life-size, demure looking, Jane Austen. With only one existing sketch of the author’s face, it’s anybody’s guess how correct this figure is, but to me it was the perfect ending to the experience.
Perhaps Jane would have approved of how goofy her legacy in Bath appears. Considering she never really liked Bath anyway, and considering her tendency to poke fun at her own society, she just might have enjoyed the ridiculousness of the experience.
If you could meet an author who’s passed, who would you choose? Have you been to the Austen Centre? Are you a Jane Austen fan? Let’s discuss in the comments below!