A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XI." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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"Conspicuous for the politeness of its amusements."

IN Miss Austen's day there were balls or concerts given on each alternate evening during the season, at the Upper and at the Lower Rooms. The Upper Rooms, situated on the high ground near Belmont, consist of a grand suite of apartments all opening out of each other, and all upon a level with the paved court outside. They were so placed on account of the sedan-chairs, which were carried right into the hall, there to set down their fair occupants.

Miss Austen writes to her sister on May 15 (1801), "I hope you honoured my toilette and ball with a thought (last evening). I dressed as well as I could, and had all my finery much admired at home. By nine o'clock my uncle, aunt and I entered the rooms. Before tea it was rather a dull affair, but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couples. Think of four couples surrounded by [Page 109]  about a hundred people dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath. After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies." In May the Bath season was just drawing to a close, so Jane's experience was very different to that of her heroine Catherine Morland at her first ball in these same rooms during the height of the season. We remember how she and Mrs. Allen slowly squeezed their way through the throng, and how, during the whole evening, poor Catherine could see "nothing of the dancers, but the high feathers of some of the ladies."

The ballroom is little changed since those days. It is thus described by the pompous Mr. Egan: "The elegance of the ball-room (which is a hundred feet in length) astonishes every spectator. The ceiling is beautifully ornamented with panels having open compartments from which are suspended five superb glass chandeliers. The walls are painted and decorated in the most tasteful style; and the Corinthian columns and entablature resemble statuary marble. At each end of the room are placed, in magnificent gilt frames, the most splendid looking-glasses that could be procured to give effect to the general brilliant appearance." [Page 110] 

We have seen this room on a gala night when lighted up by the "five superb glass chandeliers," and we could almost fancy we beheld the "all-admired

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Rauzzini" in his tie-wig, conducting his famous band in the musicians' gallery. We seemed to hear the strains of their music accompanied by the tread of the dancers' feet. "The Monday dress-ball," says a contemporary writer, [Page 111]  "is devoted to country dances only. At the fancy-ball on Thursday two cotillions are danced, one before and one after tea." This fancy-ball was not a bal costumé, but simply an occasion on which the stringent rules regulating evening dress were relaxed. "In the height of the season," continues our author, "there are generally twelve sets, and as the ladies, on this occasion, exert their fancy to the utmost in the display of their shapes and their dress, the spectacle is magnificent." The ladies, we read, wore comparatively short skirts for the cotillion with their "over-dresses picturesquely looped up." Does not this remind us of Isabella and Catherine "pinning up each other's train for the dance"? A certain Monsieur de la Cocardière, we find, presided over the cotillions. He was a French prisoner-of-war, and, being an accomplished dancer, was a great favourite in the society of Bath.

As Miss Austen moved about the ball-room she must surely have thought of her own Catherine Morland joyfully joining the set on Henry Tilney's arm, when the irrepressible John Thorpe in vain exclaimed, "Heyday, Miss Morland! What is the meaning of this? I thought you and I were to dance together . . . . This is a cursed shabby trick."

In going to the concert or tea-room Miss Austen would cross the octagon-room - the octagon-room so elegant in form and decoration with its domed [Page 112]  roof and encircling sculptured frieze, into which the ball-room, the card-room, the tea-room, and the vestibule all open. Here it was that Jane Austen contrived the memorable meeting between Anne Elliot and her sailor lover after their estrangement, when Anne became convinced that he still loved her.

The concert or tea-room is even more ornate than the octagon-room with its many pillars, its statues, its chimney-pieces, carved in rich scrolls, and its long gallery, whose balustrade is of delicate wrought iron. There, on ball-nights, the company adjourned for tea, and on concert nights, for music.

The old Assembly or Lower Rooms no longer exist, having been destroyed by fire many years ago. The author of a Bath Guide which appeared early in the century, speaks of them as situated "on the Walks leading from the Grove to the Parades," and as containing "a ball-room ninety feet long, as well as two tea-rooms, a card-room," and "an apartment devoted to the games of chess and backgammon"; and tells us that they were "superbly furnished with chandeliers, girandoles, &c." Some graceful settees of Chippendale's Chinese pattern are still to be seen that formerly stood in the Lower Rooms. "The balls," writes our author, "begin at six o'clock and end at eleven . . . . About nine o'clock the gentlemen [Page 113]  treat their partners with tea, and when that is over the company pursue their diversions till the moment comes for closing the ball." Then the Master of the Ceremonies, "entering the ballroom, orders the music to cease, and the ladies thereupon resting themselves till they grow cool, their partners complete the ceremonies of the evening by handing them to the chairs in which they are to be conveyed to their respective lodgings."

It was at a ball in the Lower Rooms, we remember, that Henry Tilney was first introduced to Catherine Morland, and that when he was "treating his partner to tea," he laughingly accused her of keeping a journal in which he feared he should make but a poor figure. "Shall I tell you," he asks, "what you ought to say? I danced with a very agreeable young man introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him; seems a most extraordinary genius." This Mr. King was, it seems, a real personage. He was Master of the Ceremonies at the Lower Rooms, from the year 1785 to 1805, when he became Master of the Ceremonies for the Upper Rooms. A code of rules compiled by him was used for about thirty years. One of these rules, originally laid down by Beau Nash, forbade gentlemen to wear boots in the rooms of an evening. It is said that when a country squire once attempted to defy [Page 114]  this rule, in the days of the King of Bath, Beau Nash asked him why he had not brought his horse into the ball-room, "since the four-footed beast was as well shod as his master."

The ball-room was used during the daytime as a promenade, for which it was well suited from its size and pleasant situation; its windows commanding extensive views of the Avon winding amidst green meadows and flanked by wooded hills. The accompanying reproduction of an old print taken from a design for a fan, shows the ball-room when used for this purpose. It was the fashion also for the company to invite each other to partake of breakfast at the Lower Rooms after taking their early baths or first glass of water.

It was in the year 1820 that these old Assembly Rooms were burnt to the ground. They had been founded by the great Beau Nash himself, and had flourished for more than a hundred years. The last gala held within their walls was singularly appropriate for the conclusion of their existence. This gala, consisting of a concert, ball and supper, and attended by nearly 700 people, was given to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Mrs. Piozzi, who, as Mrs. Thrale, was so prominent a figure in the London and Bath society of the latter end of the eighteenth century. When the dancing began, "the veteran lady led off with her adopted son, Sir John Salusbury, dancing (according to an eyewitness) [Page 115] 

(From an Old Print in the possession of Mr. J. F. Meehan, of Bath)
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[Page 117]  with astonishing elasticity and with all the true air of dignity which might have been expected of one of the best-bred females in society."[1]

The theatre that Miss Austen knew, and where


she placed the meeting between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland after their misunderstanding when they conversed in Mrs. Allen's box, was not the present Bath theatre but the old theatre in Orchard Street. There Mrs. Siddons had first made a name, and there John Kemble, [Page 118]  Foote and many another well-known actor had performed; there, too, Sheridan's "Rivals" achieved a brilliant success after its cold reception in London. The building is still standing, but it has passed through some strange vicissitudes. In 1809, soon after the erection of the new theatre, it was converted into a Roman Catholic chapel, and so remained for fifty-four years, when it became a Freemasons' Hall. Some traces, however, of its early origin seem still to cling to the place, for, looking at it from the street, we noticed what Dickens has termed a "furtive sort of door with a curious up-all-night air about it," which an old print shows to have been once the pit entrance.

In Miss Austen's day the "White Hart" and the "York House." were the chief inns and coaching houses of Bath. The "White Hart" stood in Stall Street facing the Pump Room. It was pulled down in 1867, and replaced by a big modern hotel. We have, however, seen a print of the old inn that hangs in the Pump Room, in which it is represented as a large flat stone building with a pillared portico in the centre, upon which stands the figure of a white hart. As we looked at the long rows of windows in the print, we wondered which of them belonged to the spacious parlour occupied by the Musgrove family, in which the momentous scene in "Persuasion" took place, [Page 119]  when Captain Wentworth, overhearing Anne Elliot's words to Captain Harville, writes the letter to her which reopens a world of happiness to them both.

In one of her letters Miss Austen remarks: "On Sunday we went to church twice, and after evening service walked a little in the Crescent Fields." Probably the "church" here mentioned was the Octagon Chapel, the favourite place of worship, in her day, of the visitors to Bath. It stands in Milsom-street at the end of a passage guarded by some iron gates, and would be on her way from Paragon to the Crescent Fields (now the Victoria Park). The building is no longer used as a chapel, but when we saw it a few years ago it was a quaint old-world place, with high pews, deep galleries, and pulpit, all of dark polished wood. The light came down from a lanthorn in the centre of the roof, and we noticed six curious recesses ranged beneath the galleries. These recesses "were really neatly furnished rooms, with chairs, tables, and all necessary comforts." An old advertisement announces that during the winter season "six fires are constantly kept burning" in them "for the benefit of invalids." The organ stands in the western gallery, and there William Herschel performed as organist for some years. He had, however, given up music for astronomy before Miss Austen's day. [Page 120]  Mrs. Piozzi, who lived for a time in Bath, writes to a friend: "You will rejoice to hear that I came out alive from the Octagon Chapel, where Rider, Bishop of Gloucester, preached on behalf of the missionaries to a crowd, such as in my long life I never witnessed. We were packed like seeds in a sunflower."[1]

In going towards the Crescent Fields, Miss Austen would proceed along George Street, and then would turn up steep Gay Street, whence a fine view of Beechen Cliff is to be had, "that noble hill," she writes, "whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath." It was on Beechen Cliff that Catherine Morland was walking with the Tilneys when Henry discoursed upon the picturesque in Nature - talking of "foregrounds, distances, second distances, side-screens and perspective, lights and shades, and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape."

The upper end of Gay Street opens into the Circus, which stands on very high ground. Miss Burney has truly styled Bath "a city of palaces, a town of hills and a hill of towns." From the Circus Miss Austen and her friends would pass [Page 121]  by Brock Street into the Royal Crescent, and so into the Crescent Fields. "At all times the Crescent," writes Mr. Egan, "is an attractive promenade for the visitors of Bath; but in the season on a Sunday it is also crowded with fashionables of every kind; and with the addition of the splendid barouche, dashing curricle, elegant tandem, and gentlemen on horseback, the Royal Crescent strongly reminds the spectator of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens when adorned with all their brilliancy of company." The "Crescent Fields" slope down towards the Avon, commanding beautiful views of the winding river and surrounding country. Although their name has been changed they are probably little altered since Miss Austen strolled about them on that Sunday afternoon in May a hundred years ago.



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1 See 'Piozziana," by a friend, 1883.

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1 "Famous Buildings of Bath and District," by J. F. Meehan.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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