Thousands of people in period costume flock to the streets of Bath every September. The historic city in Somerset, England, becomes an immersive Regency experience, thanks to the Jane Austen Festival. Organised by the Jane Austen Centre, the annual event celebrates the well-loved author during ten days of walks, talks, shows and balls.
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city is featured in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published after her death, in 1817.
A LUSH HISTORY
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Bath was a popular spa resort frequented by fashionable society. They visited the thermal baths that had existed since Roman times, as ‘taking the waters’ was considered good for health. The Grand Pump Room, a building adjacent to the baths and so-named for the spa water pumped into the room from the baths’ springs, was the main place for social gatherings.
A LOCATION SETTING
The first half of Northanger Abbey is set in the stately city, where Georgian architecture built with cream-coloured limestone is the dominant style. Protagonist Catherine Morland meets her love interest Henry Tilney in the Pump Room and anxiously tries to find him there on every visit. The historic Assembly Rooms, designed in 1769, also feature in both novels, as well as many other Bath locations. In Persuasion, snobbish spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot chooses “a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence.”
THE LITTLENESS OF BATH
As Persuasion was published a few years after it was written, Austen worried that the Bath scene was no longer in vogue. She added a disclaimer, stating that “places, manners, books and opinions have undergone considerable changes.”
She need not have worried. Many of the places described in her novels still exist today. The layout of Bath has remained relatively unchanged, so visitors can trace the characters’ footsteps in real life. The Jane Austen Centre itself is located on Gay Street. Austen and her sister Cassandra lived on the street for a year after their father’s death and it is also mentioned in Persuasion. Despite enjoying earlier visits, it is thought she did not like living there. Her views are likely mirrored in those of protagonist Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who reflects on “the littlenesses of a town” like Bath.
Nevertheless, the city provides the perfect setting to transport fans back to Austen’s day, taking in a host of locations mentioned in her books. Now the largest and longest-running Austen celebration in the world, the Jane Austen Festival attracts over 3,500 people from around the world. In the words of Catherine Morland: “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?”
Regency and Georgian
The Georgian era was a period in British history between 1714 and 1830. It was named after the kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The Regency period refers to nine years between 1811 and 1820 when George, Prince of Wales, governed the country as Regent during the madness of his father George III. When his father died in 1820, the Prince ascended the throne as George IV. The truth about George III’s condition has been much debated. Some historians believe he suffered from a genetic blood disorder called porphyria. Others say he suffered from mental illness.