I’ve been to England twice before, to the beautiful Georgian city of Bath in particular, because as a Jane Austen aficionado, a “Jane-ite,” if you will, that’s what we do. We follow in her footsteps, we look for the Jane connection, and we read each of her six novels (and the juvenilia, the marginalia, and the letters) as if they were travelogues.
In their own unique way, some of them are travelogues of a sort. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth Bennett and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner plan a tour of the Lakes District, in part to forget about certain young men. “For what are men to rocks and mountains?” Elizabeth proclaims. Indeed. Two of Austen’s novels may be read almost as guidebooks to the city of Bath: Northanger Abbey uses Bath as a major locale for its foolish ingénue, Catherine Moreland, and Austen’s final completed novel, Persuasion, also takes place in part in Bath.
This time around, I was determined to find Jane Austen in the streets of this cobbled city. I knew that she had lived in several locations around town, when visiting her aunt or other relations. Her father, an Anglican minister, chose Bath as the place he wanted to settle after retirement, and the city became Jane’s home for some years until his death. They moved house more than once in that time, so finding Jane is more than a mere amble to a set location; much more than just a pit stop and an emptying of pockets in the gift shoppe.
I began my journey to find Jane down at the Pump Room, above the ancient Roman Baths (Stall St., tel +44 1225 477785), built about A.D. 65-75. The adjacent hot spring feeds the baths at a temperature of about 115 Â° Fahrenheit. It is worth the time to take the self-guided tour and get a close-up look at the actual green waters of the hot and cool baths. This is where various characters in Austen’s novels have been sent to “take the waters” – that is, to drink from Bath Fountain: Persuasion’s poor Mrs. Smith, who is crippled by rheumatism, for example; Emma’s hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse, is also recommended to visit by the obnoxious Mrs. Elton.
Above the baths is the elegant 18th-century Pump Room, where you can take refreshment. Enjoy a delicious afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, petit fours, cakes, scones, clotted cream and jam, tea and Champagne. It was lovely, and when I asked for more cream (as in, milk) for my tea and was brought another bowlful of clotted cream, it was heavenly. Clotted cream comes in a special serving bowl with a spoon in it that tilts toward you, inviting you to scoop from it. I had already consumed my scone so there was nothing left but to eat the cream with a spoon. It was very, very naughty, but at the same time, divine: to lick clotted cream from a spoon while watching pigeons fly around the cobbled square, and listening to a pianist perform the air from The Sleeping Beauty on a grand piano, in a room where Jane Austen and many of her characters strolled: simply divine. And what would Jane have done? The same, I am certain.
After eating so much, it was a tough call whether to “take the waters” or not. The fountain is located in the corner of the Pump Room, with a liveried waiter who will serve you a glass for about 50 pence. The water is warm, cloudy and smells like sulfur --- not exactly the after-tea drink I wanted. I decided to save the experience for another day. Fortified by all that pastry and clotted cream, I was ready to climb the seven hills of Bath, so off I went, clambering up the cobblestones in search of the domiciles I needed to see so I could touch some part of Jane’s life.