In search of the unknown Jane Austen
During the RoP 2002 vacation, 30 July was a "Free Day" in Bath. Of course, this pleased me, as I love to have a day that I don't have to pay for. I was incorrect, as many of you have already determined, in that the "Free" referred to unscheduled time, rather than no-cost time!
In any case, I decided not to follow the well-trodden path to the sites which everybody already knew about - Pump Room, Crescent, JA Centre, etc., but to seek places that might have possibly been associated with the life and/or time of JA, or someone very much like her.
Here is a summary of the results of my self-guided tour [May I just take this opportunity of saying how uniformly charming my guide was, and so like myself, it was as if we were of but one mind throughout the day. (-: ]:
I got off the bus and imagined myself in JA's place. She & a friend (or perhaps her sister Cassandra) are wanting to tour Bath, but where do they go? Well, they probably had to consult a map. When they walked on, they may have seen helpful signs. Of course, I realize that this sign post is not quite the same as JA would have seen it - there was certainly no JA Centre when she visited Bath - but there may have been possibly some of these same signs about town.
I walked on a path along the river, jumping out of the way of a bicyclist - would Jane have yielded to riders on horseback? Would she have had to be careful about where she stepped (horses are not always delicate & discrete, after all)?
Back amongst the shops, my guide pointed out where JA could have had clothing cleaned and where her brothers would have had their carriages repaired and/or stored.
There were so many connections to the Unknown JA, that I hardly knew where to look, but I did get a partial picture of the Theatre Royal. I wondered if JA would have liked theatre today, especially a witty play like "Private Lives" starring Alan Rickman? I am almost certain that she would have - who with discernment would not?
Remembering all the letters that JA had cause to write, mostly to family and friends, I was very pleased to spot the CyberCafe that she would surely have used - if only computers, electricity, and telephones had been invented then.
Whilst walking through Bath, I happened upon the Circus - not lions & tigers & bears (Oh, my!), but a circle of townhouses. JA might have stood in the center of the Circus, and twirled around. Ouch, tree - I hope Jane didn't hurt herself. :-/
I next happened upon some indications of JA writings - maybe she was inspired to write Chapter 1 of S&S (that portion dealing with John & Fanny). In quick succession, I saw Barton Street, a reference to annuities, and John&Fanny's street. A short distance away I found Mark Strong's, err, that is, Mr Knightley's street. I noticed a charitable organization on his street - I am certain that he would approve.
I began to feel that I was in touch with the spirits of this unknown Jane Austen, so much so that when a sign for the Building of Bath Museum caught my eye, I was certain that it was significant. Upon closer inspection, I found that this building was "Formerly Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel, A.D. 1765." Built before JA's birth - she might have visited here; I was greatly moved by this possibility.
Continuing my walk, I happened upon these relief facilities. Again, I am certain there have been changes since JA's time (the Disabled facilities are most certainly added relatively recently), but could she have used the Ladies during the course of a long walk around Bath? I think maybe yes.
When JA visited Bath, did she observe the other visitors? And did she participate in any formal walking tours? And more importantly, what did she think of the omni-present street performers that annoy the heck out of some present-day tourists?
The hair on the back of my neck began to stand up as I walked along Broad Street. Looking across the street, I saw an antique store. But these were specifically 18th Century Antiques!! I knew I was on to something big - and just down the block I made a major discovery. So, there was inspiration for P&P, as well S&S and Emma, right here in Bath. Across the street from Bingley's place was the Old Post Office, with the Bennett Insurance Office next to it (the shorter building with the royal blue awning). Bennett across from Bingley - coincidence? I think not.
[This was the only time my camera let me down - but my tour guide will support my claim that it was indeed Bennett (2 t's, I know, but JA wouldn't want to be too obvious, after all).]
My guide took me to Queen Square and insisted that I take a picture of the sign. I asked why, but she just gave me a knowing look! I read the sign closely, and the light began to dawn: first of all I see that the architect who designed the square was John Wood the ELDER (and I am kathleen the ELDER). Also, at the time the sign was erected (1977), they were celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Design of the Square - which puts the design back in 1727, well before JA's birth! And, look at the Obelisk of 1738. There are 2 benches close by - and I am certain that JA might have composed the opening lines of P&P whilst sitting on one of these benches in front of that Obelisk.
The self-guided tour was nearly over, and I had seen so much. We happened upon Hardy's Café. It is little known that Thomas Hardy attempted an early sequel to P&P - and worked on it in this café. It was never published, but the restaurant owners named the café in his honor, or so I might have been told if I had asked.
At the end of a day spent wandering the streets of Bath, I did just what JA would have done: shopped for gifts and had tea with friends. A wonderful ending to a day spent in the company of Jane Austen's memory.
I highly recommend self-guided tours - if your guide is up to it!