"Chapter X." by Constance Hill
"The elegant city without a parallel in the Kingdom."
MISS AUSTEN writes upon their arrival in Bath: "Our journey here was perfectly free from accident or event; we changed horses at the end of every stage, and paid at almost every turnpike. . . . Between Luggershall and Everley we made our grand meal, and then, with admiring astonishment, perceived in what a magnificent manner our support had been provided for. We could not, with the utmost exertion, consume above the twentieth part of the beef.
"We had a very neat chaise from Devizes; it looked almost as well as a gentleman's, at least as a very shabby gentleman's; in spite of this advantage, however, we were above three hours coming from thence to Paragon, and it was half after seven by our clocks before we entered the house.
"Frank, whose black head was in waiting at the [Page 96] hall window, received us very kindly, and his master and mistress did not show less cordiality. We drank tea as soon as we arrived, and so ends the account of our journey which my mother bore without fatigue . . . . I had not been two minutes in the dining-room before my uncle questioned me with all his accustomary eager interest about Frank and Charles, their views and intentions. I did my best to give information."
Let us follow in the wake of this "very neat chaise" gentle reader, alighting, as Jane did, in Paragon.
Those who know Bath may remember that this name is given to the eastern side of a curved street on the slope of a steep hill, whose opposite side, called Vineyards, is raised above the level of the road on a high terrace walk. In Miss Austen's day Paragon consisted of twenty-one houses only, as those at the northern end of the row were then called Axford Buildings. The Leigh Perrots' house, it seems, was No. 1 Paragon, which is nearly opposite a steep passage leading up to Belmont. At the further end of the street can be seen the green slopes that rise abruptly to Camden Place; which "Place" is described by a contemporary writer, the grandiloquent Mr. Egan, as a "superb crescent composed of majestic [Page 97] buildings." No wonder that the author of "Persuasion" made Sir Walter Elliot choose this locality for his residence in Bath as being "a lofty and dignified situation, such as became a man of consequence." There, "in the best house in Camden Place," we can fancy the vain-glorious baronet and his daughter Elizabeth rejoicing in their superiority to their neighbours in the size of their drawing-rooms, the taste of their furniture, and the, elegance of their card-parties.
In her first letter from Bath, Miss Austen speaks of walking with her uncle to the Pump Room where he had to take "his second glass of water." On leaving Paragon they would pass down Broad Street and High Street, and then entering the paved court that surrounds the Abbey, they would pass by its grand western front, flanked by the two Jacob's ladders, with their ascending and descending angels. "But here," to quote the words of Mr. Egan again, "the scene from 'grave to gay' is changed with almost the celerity of Harlequin's bat, and epitaphs and monumental inscriptions are banished for the lively gaiety of the Great Pump Room."
There it stands! a dignified stone edifice; its four tall fluted pillars crowned with Corinthian capitals, supporting a sculptured pediment. We can imagine the busy scene in the courtyard, where sedan-chairs would be carried to and fro [Page 98] amid a throng of gaily dressed people continually passing in and out of the two main entrances.
When Miss Austen and her uncle had passed in also, they would find themselves in a long, lofty room lighted by tall windows, and having at each end a large semi-circular arched recess, one containing the musicians' gallery, the other a statue of Beau Nash standing in a niche above a tall clock. Beau Nash! who for fifty years "was literally the King of Bath," and of whom Goldsmith wrote: "I have known him on a ball night strip even the Duchess of Queensberry of her costly lace apron, and throw it on one of the back benches; observing that none but abigails appeared in white aprons; and when the Princess Amelia applied to him at 11 o'clock for one more dance refuse, his laws being as he said like those of Lycurgus - unalterable."
In the centre of the long wall, to Beau Nash's left, a stone balustrade fronts an alcove in which the waters, rising in a marble basin, throw up a column of steam, and where the attendants in mob caps and aprons, are busy filling and handing out glasses to the company. We fancy we see "the ever shifting throng of gaily dressed people" pacing up and down the centre of the room, or sitting at small tables with glasses in their hands sipping their water, the ladies attired in soft white muslin dresses trimmed with blue, green or pink [Page 99]
[Page 101] ribbons, and wearing small sandalled shoes of the same colour, their heads surmounted by hats of all shapes and sizes, adorned with tall nodding plumes or with great bunches of fruit or flowers. Among these head-dresses the "Minerva helmet" might be seen "trimmed with a wreath of flowers and a bow of blue riband," which had then just come into fashion. The men, too, have their share of gay attire. The elderly beaux still wear the showy embroidered waistcoats, knee breeches, lace ruffles and sparkling shoe buckles of the late eighteenth century, while the younger men, conforming to the newer style, have adopted close-fitting nankeen pantaloons tied above the ankle by a piece of ribbon, and wear long-tailed blue coats adorned with brass buttons, while their necks are swathed in voluminous white muslin cravats.
We can imagine how Miss Austen would observe all these people, noting their talk as they passed and repassed her; and how, perhaps, as she detected the airs and graces and veiled selfishness of some, or admired the genuine simplicity of others, she might smile at the thought of her portraiture of the Thorpes, the Allens, and the Tilneys, and of Catherine Morland lying hidden away in her travelling trunk. She could not glance at the clock, to see if it were time for her uncle and herself to return home, without remembering that [Page 102] it was on a bench beneath that very clock that she had placed Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen when they recognised each other as old acquaintances, and when "their joy on the occasion was very great, as well it might be since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years." There Mrs. Thorpe had expatiated upon the beauty of her daughters and the accomplishments of her sons. While poor Mrs. Allen, who "had no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend," was "forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eyes soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe's pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own."
Perhaps when Miss Austen and her uncle quitted the Pump Room they may have made their way through the Pump Yard to the archway opposite Union Passage, and there have had their progress arrested, as it once befell Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland, by the difficulties of crossing Cheap Street at this point, thronged as it is "by carriages, horsemen, and carts." If so, Jane would certainly call to mind her introduction of John Thorpe on to the scene of action, when he appeared driving his gig along the bad pavement "with all the vehemence that could most fitly endanger the lives of himself, his companion, [Page 103] and his horse." How well we all know that "stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom," and can fancy we hear him exclaim: "Look at my horse, Miss Morland. Did you
ever see an animal so made for speed in your life? Such true blood . . . . See how he moves. That horse cannot go less than ten miles an hour; tie his legs and he will get on." And Catherine's innocent reply: "He does look very hot to be sure."
Miss Austen speaks of her and her uncle taking their "morning circuit." Perhaps this led them [Page 104] to ascend Milsom Street - a street described in glowing colours by Mr. Egan, whose work on Bath we have already quoted. "Milsom Street," he remarks, "is the very magnet of Bath, the centre of attraction and, till the hour of dinner-time, the peculiar resort of the beau monde - where the familiar nod and the 'how do you do' are repeated fifty times in the course of the morning. All is bustle and gaiety," he continues, "numerous dashing equipages passing and repassing, others gracing the doors of the tradesmen; sprinkled here and there with the invalids in the comfortable sedans and easy two-wheeled carriages. The shops are capacious and elegant. Among them the visitors find libraries to improve the mind, musical repositories to enrich their taste and science, confectioners to invite the most fastidious appetite, and tailors, milliners, &c., of the highest eminence in the fashionable world, to adorn the male and decorate and beautify the female, so as to render the form almost of statuary excellence." While another contemporary writer observes: "The population of the principal streets seem to consist of gay folks, shopkeepers, and chairmen. To what can we liken the place on a fine day? A swarm of bees unsettled - the evening flies that dance joyfully in the beams of the setting sun. Almost every individual in the numerous groups you meet seems bursting with [Page 105] delight; the streets resound with their voices. But," he adds gravely, "when I have seen a young lady dashing down Milsom Street, her hat turned up before, her voice loud, her step quick and confident, I own I have felt a little startled. Is there or is there not," he asks, "any other large town where young women indiscriminately run either alone or in groups from one end to the other without any servant or steady friend to accompany them, talking and laughing at the corners of the streets, and walking sometimes with young men only?"
We see by the above that it was quite in accordance with Bath customs for the young Thorpes and Morlands to go about together unaccompanied by any "steady friend."
As Jane Austen passed up Milsom Street perhaps her eye may have fallen on some hale old admiral standing before a print-shop window which suggested to her mind the incident, afterwards introduced into "Persuasion." of Admiral Croft so standing in amused contemplation of the picture of a boat - "a shapeless old cockle shell" - as he styled it, in which he "would not venture across a horse-pond!"
Milsom Street is peopled with Jane Austen's characters. The august General Tilney, together with his daughter Eleanor, and her "all-conquering brother" Henry, had apartments there. We [Page 106] fancy them settled in the centre of some imposing looking buildings on the eastern side of the street which are adorned with fluted pilasters and many a stately carving above door and window.
At the top of Milsom Street are Edgar's Buildings, raised upon a high terrace walk and approached by a steep flight of steps. In one of these houses the Thorpes lodged.
Miss Mitford tells us that when she visited Bath she lived far more in the company of Jane Austen's characters than in that of the actual celebrities of the place and found them "much the more real of the two." "Her exquisite story of 'Persuasion,'" she writes, "absolutely haunted me. Whenever it rained, I thought of Anne Elliot meeting Captain Wentworth, when driven by a shower to take refuge in a shoe-shop. Whenever I got out of breath in climbing uphill, I thought of that same charming Anne Elliot and of that ascent from the lower town to the upper, during which all her tribulations ceased. And when, at last, by dint of trotting up one street and down another, I incurred the unromantic calamity of a blister on the heel, even that grievance became classical by the recollection of the similar catastrophe which, in consequence of her peregrinations with the admiral, had befallen dear Mrs. Croft."
The lively noise and bustle of the streets of [Page 107] Bath were agreeable even to the quiet pleasure-seeker like Lady Russell. She had felt the din, made by a merry group of holiday children at Uppercross, to be intolerable; a din, however, characterised by Mrs. Musgrove, as a "little quiet cheerfulness which was doing her much good." "But," says our authoress, "everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters," and "when Lady Russell was entering Bath, on a wet afternoon, and driving through its streets amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were noises which belonged to her winter pleasures, her spirits rose under their influence . . . and, like Mrs. Musgrove, she was feeling, though not saying, that nothing could be so good for her as a little quiet cheerfulness."
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne.
2 See "Famous Houses of Bath etc.," by J. F. Meehan.
1 See Heideloff's "Gallery of Fashion," 1796-1803.
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