Although the review in my handy Rick Steves’ England guidebook wasn’t exactly a glowing one, I decided to make the visit anyway. I had grown up on Jane Austen novels and their television and film adaptations. Besides that, I also thought the underappreciated 2013 comedic film, Austenland, was rather a hoot. So why not check out the Jane Austen Centre as well?
After all, it’s not everyday I get to visit the Georgian-Era spa town of Bath, which my guidebook tells me has more “‘government-listed’ or protected historic buildings per capita than any other town in England.”
In fact, I had only ever visited Bath once before, on my thirtieth birthday, to be precise. I had managed to escape from the seafaring toils of my then floating home and workplace, the RMS Queen Mary 2, by escorting a passenger tour from Southampton, where the cruise ship was docked for the day.
This May, almost exactly ten years later, I was looking forward to revisiting the lovely English city, including the Royal Crescent, which had left quite an impression on me the first time around.
The Royal Crescent is a Georgian-Era row of 30 terraced houses — the seven-year-long construction of which was completed just two years before the US gained its independence in 1776. (Back when it was still just an unruly colony.)
From the expanse of manicured green lawn within the embrace of the crescent’s arc, one enjoys a fine example of the beautiful symmetry you’ll find all over Bath.
Georgian architecture, incidentally, gets its name from the time span of its reign, which coincided with that of four successive “George” monarchs: George I, George II, George III, and George IV, between 1714 and 1830.
By Jove, that’s a lot of Georges!
Queen Anne front, Mary Anne behind
The design of the Royal Crescent has been called “Queen Anne front and Mary Anne behind,” as a metaphor to describe the refined, symmetrical elegance of the façade, in contrast with a backside that just wants to live like common people: a bit more down-to-earth and not quite as symmetrical or sophisticated.
Putting your best face forward was as important then as ever, I suppose.
Queen Mary II famously visited Bath, albeit over a century before Jane Austen called it home. As per my guidebook, Her Highness, fighting infertility, bathed in Bath in 1687, and “within 10 months, gave birth to a son… and a new age of popularity for Bath.”
So by the time Jane Austen frequented and later lived there, Bath had reached its heyday of prominence as the stomping ground for aristocrats and landed gentry.
Just imagine all of the balls that were held!
I’m referring to glamorous society balls with music and dancing, of course. Due to Bath’s revival as a top spa-town getaway — as home to the only hot springs in Britain — it was attracting both well-to-do and wannabes alike.
And much like an 18th-century socialite (minus the fancy frock, stuffy social conventions, wealth, or marital aspirations), I went to visit the Roman Baths as well. They date from the first century, when Romans made Bath part of their empire and frolicked in its healing waters.
Visiting fine settings such as the Royal Crescent, the Roman Baths, or the Grand Pump Room makes it easy to imagine those dandies and debutantes of the past, who — like Austen-novel characters — were likely preoccupied with putting their best face forward. Bath brings to life the context that inspired Jane to ponder themes of social pretence versus often grittier reality.
With that in mind, I left the beautiful symmetry behind and made my way to the Jane Austen Centre, quickly reviewing what my England guidebook had to say about it en route.
“There’s little of historic substance here,” Rick warns, and proceeds to explain: “You’ll walk through a Georgian townhouse that she didn’t live in (one of her real addresses in Bath was a few houses up the road, at 25 Gay Street), and you’ll see mostly enlarged reproductions of things associated with her writing as well as her overhyped waxwork likeness, but none of that seems to bother the steady stream of happy Austen fans touring through the house.”
True, the “waxwork likeness” out front was definitely overhyped, and rather on the kitschy end of the spectrum. Or downright creepy? You decide.
But I wasn’t about to turn my nose up at “Colin Firth’s visage emblazoned on teacups, postcards, and more.” Or the “I love Mr. Darcy” tote bags Rick warns his readers of either.
After all, who doesn’t “heart” Fitzwilliam Darcy? (There’s a forename that could make a comeback!)
Before you think me completely frivolous, let me tell you that I actually learned some interesting things from our costumed guide during my visit.
What I learned at the Jane Austen Centre
- As a novelist who wrote of love and marriage, Jane herself never got married.
- Her novels were published anonymously, so she gained neither fame nor fortune during her lifetime.
- Several novels did, however, manage to fetch some profits, which allowed her a degree of independence.
- Jane and her only sister, Cassandra, were extremely close and maintained regular written correspondence during Jane’s lifetime. (Jane died in 1817 at age 41, while Cassandra lived to the ripe age of 72, passing in 1875.)
- Not long before her death, Cassandra burned “the greater part” of the letters from Jane, leaving for posterity only what she deemed fit for public consumption.
- Of Jane’s six brothers, she was closest with Henry Austen, who also acted as her literary agent.
Jane Austen to be New Face of Ten-Pound Note
As my tour of the Jane Austen Centre came to its conclusion, I learned another interesting tidbit from our bonnet-wearing docent: In 2017, Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the Bank of England’s ten-pound note.
This will make Jane Austen the fourth woman ever to appear “on English banknotes since they started portraying historical figures in 1970.” Not a bad statistic, considering the number of women currently portrayed on US banknotes.
As a woman who was well aware of her place in society, and who never experienced any of the fame that her novels would later garner, what would Jane have thought of her newly earned place on the tenner?
One can only imagine. Whatever her response, though, I’m sure it would’ve been a witty one.