By Harry Mottram. One thing hasn’t changed about Bath since the time that Catherine Morland visited the city: ‘shops must be visited and money must be spent.’
Mr Allen’s words are as true now as they were in Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey which is one of the reasons that her novels still ring true – the other being the well observed characters and social conflicts which although of their time are universal and remain contemporary.
Northanger Abbey written in 1803 is not the only novel of Austen’s that features Bath but it gives a vivid description of the busy social scene as seen through the eyes of Catherine.
The coming of age novel is a gentle send up of the fad for Gothic novels of the time in which beautiful heroines are locked away in haunted castles and are rescued from bounders intent on having their wicked way with young women.
Poor Catherine is so wrapped up in the fantasies of Ann Radcliffe’s novel the Mysteries of Udolpho, that she superimposes thoughts of murder and mystery onto General Tilney of Northanger Abbey, convinced he has murdered his wife.
In Bath she is more concerned with the more prosaic problems of gaining a step on the social circle that centred on the Upper Assembly Rooms. Here together with Mrs Allen she squeezes through the throng in the hope of meeting an eligible young man.
Unfortunately she meets the ghastly upwardly mobile Thorpes, and is initially unable to spot a couple of snobs until their true nature is revealed.
Eventually she meets Henry Tilney who is more in tune with the foibles of society and the Thorpes in particular and can spot a phoney at 50 paces. Spoiler alert, he inevitably falls for Catherine.
Catherine’s mission to Bath is to accompany the Allens during their stay in the city with shopping one of the activities planned.
Having settled in their lodgings in Pulteney Street Mrs Allen and Catherine head for Milsom Street and Bond Street where ‘one can step out of doors and get a thing in five minutes’.
In an encounter with Henry Tilney, he and Mrs Allen discuss the merits of the muslin that Catherine has bought from one of Bath’s retailers. She remarks: “Bath is a charming place, sir; there are so many good shops here.”
Another centre of socialising was the Pump Room where taking the waters was all part of the visit.
After a visit to Bath Abbey we learn: “As soon as the divine service was over, the Thorpes and the Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent.”
Ah, the Crescent, that perennial backdrop to not only the film and TV versions of Jane Austen’s novels but to films like The Duchess with Keira Knightley, or Vanity Fair, with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.
Number One The Royal Crescent is a museum complete with rooms restored to how they would have been furnished in Catherine’s time in Bath. Suffice to say as a member of the middle classes she would have been spared the grime and hard labour of that of the servants who emptied the chamber pots, cooked the meals and cleaned the lodgings.
There’s plenty more on the author herself and her family in the Jane Austen Centre in Gay Street, while the Fashion Museum has examples of what the Tilneys and their set would have worn.
And there are regular guided walks visiting the places mentioned in Northanger Abbey where hopefully you won’t bump into any snobs like the Thorpes.
• The novel remains in print and is available from all good book shops in Bath.
• The Jane Austen Festival in Bath runs from 8th to 17th September 2022. For details visit www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk/
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