With Bath’s famous Jane Austen Festival fast approaching, we thought we would explore the famous author’s links with the city and look at how Bath became the epicentre of fashionable Georgian society by the time Austen made it her home.
Jane Austen set two of her six published novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in Bath and lived here from 1801 to 1806, by which time the city had grown into a thriving spa resort, popular with fashionable society and commoners alike.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen writes: “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”
So, how was it that Bath rose from a small insignificant rural enclave to the go-to destination of Georgian high society?
A brief history of Georgian Bath
Bath’s rise out of obscurity started in 1704 when Queen Anne and King George began travelling there regularly to ‘take the waters’ for their curative properties. Many others began to follow and the popularity of mineral rich spa waters as a natural health enhancer grew.
But it was under the flamboyant eye of Bath’s master of ceremonies Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the most notorious dandy of his day, that Bath was truly transformed into the go-to destination for wealthy Londoners seeking to escape the capital. It was Beau Nash that made Bath a social hub for elite society with his eccentric and sometimes outrageous antics.
During his tenure from 1705 to 1761, he oversaw the repair of the city’s roads, the renovation of Bath’s many lodging houses, commissioned the Pump Room and most importantly, the construction of the Assembly House which would become the key meeting place of fashionable society. He also set strict rules for the social events of the day such as dinners, balls and concerts.
Nash’s Assembly House was replaced in 1771 by the Bath Assembly Rooms still in place today which were described as ‘the most noble and elegant of any in the kingdom’. At one concert at the Assembly Rooms in 1779, attended by around 800 ladies and gentlemen, 60 members of the nobility were present. The building features in both Jane Austen’s Bath based novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Nash fostered the budding career of architect John Wood the Elder (1704 to 1754), who is responsible for some of Bath’s most famous Georgian buildings including Queen’s Square, The Circus and Prior Park. His son, John Wood the Younger (1728 to 1782), then built upon his father’s legacy designing the iconic Royal Crescent, Gay Street and the new Assembly Rooms.
As more people flocked to Bath throughout the 18th century, the city expanded far beyond its medieval city walls to meet the demand and became the earliest example of active town planning with innovative features such as squares, crescents, wider spacious streets with attractive views deliberately created. Bath’s Georgian town planning influenced much subsequent development across the UK and is one of the reasons for the city being named as Unesco World Heritage site.
The extensive urban growth and construction work bought vast riches to the city and saw new fortunes made – most notably Ralph Allen (1693 to 1764) who from humble beginnings amassed a huge fortune after buying up the quarries at Combe Down and Bathampton Down whose Bath stone was used to construct virtually all of the city’s Georgian centre. These new-found fortunes funded the construction of many of Bath’s most ornate properties such as Allen’s home Prior Park.
By the time Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was firmly on the map as a leisure town but had begun to lose its elite appeal for fashionable society who had moved on to new pastures.
Jane Austen’s family lived in rural Hampshire before moving to Bath in 1801 on the wishes of Jane’s father Rev George Austen. As an unmarried daughter she had no choice but to follow but it is thought Jane was not a great fan of city life.
Her mother Cassandra Leigh was originally from Bath and her parents had married there in 1764 which may explain their return. Jane’s sister Cassandra also lived in Bath, in The Paragon.
Jane is known to have attended balls and other events at the Assembly Rooms and Pump Rooms as well as fireworks in Sydney Gardens.
When Jane’s father died in 1805 leaving the Austin family with little money, they initially moved into rented rooms in Trim Street, which was then considered an insalubrious address, before leaving the city for good and moving to the south coast.
So Jane Austen’s personal links with Bath were relatively fleeting but by making it the setting for two of her novels, she immortalised the city for Austen fans for generations to come.
There is no doubt a visit to Bath is a Jane Austen fan’s dream come true as a meander around the perfectly preserved Georgian city centre, with the streets and buildings described by Austen still standing, can transport you straight into the pages of Persuasion or Northanger Abbey – have a read of our guide to the perfect Georgian promenade around Bath for inspiration.
If you are planning a trip to Bath for the Jane Austen Festival, all Panda Sanctuaries’ self-catering Bath holiday homes are within an easy stroll of the city centre making them ideal launch pads from which to enjoy the festivities and everything Bath has to offer.
So come and stay with us to indulge your love of all things Jane Austen.