Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Calling on Jane: N M Browne

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a history girl in possession of a good blogspot must be in want of a subject and what better than our dear Jane? I am very far from being an expert though I have read the novels endlessly since I discovered them as an eleven year omnivorous reader. They satisfy a particular need: just as I occasionally discover a yen for lemon sorbet so I crave the acerbic wit of Miss Austen.
Imagine my delight on discovering that Mr Browne was persuaded to take rooms in Bath if only for the Bank Holiday weekend. Bath - to arrive with hope and then to visit the Jane Austen museum! How gravely disappointed did I feel to apprehend the venality of the establishment; the paucity of its material, and inadequacy of the exhibits. It cannot be doubted that should  Miss Austen have had the misfortune to find herself in its vicinity, she would have been shocked and mortified, found it a deal less than tolerable and certainly unsuitable for any person of sense or sensibility.
In short it was a rip off and twenty minutes of Googling would have told me more. A man in a waistcoat gave a short lecture, there was a mannikin wearing reproduction naval uniform and a selection of jumble sale quality headgear to try on; we were encouraged to watch a crackly poor quality video on Jane Austen in Bath presented by Amanda Root, and of course avail ourselves of the opportunity to buy souvenirs and consume overpriced cream teas.

Jane Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806 first at Sydney Place and then, when the lease expired, to Green Park Buildings. After her father’s death, when money became increasingly short, the family took lodgings  at 25 Gay St ( The museum is at number 40)  a location mentioned in ‘Persuasion’ as the address of Admiral Croft. It is suitable for a Miss Anne Elliot, the daughter of a Baronet to visit, but not inappropriately grand,
‘perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction.  He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance, and did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him.' (Persuasion.)

As the Austens' position became more precarious even these lodgings became too expensive and they moved closer to the Westgate Buildings a place which in her fiction is associated with the poor and infirm widow Miss Smith: '"Westgate Buildings!" said he, "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you." (Persuasion)

In fact Jane Auste
n’s own view of the place was more generous. As she writes in her letter to her sister, Cassandra: ‘Westgate Buildings, though quite in the lower part of the town, are not badly situated themselves. The street is broad, and has rather a good appearance.’ She also adds ‘In the meantime she [their mother] assures you that she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street, although you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it which was rather expected.’ Trim Street was not however avoided and the family stayed there until they went to live with Jane's brother Frank and his family in 1806.

Mr Browne and I found the architecture of Bath Pump Rooms and the Assembly rooms more to our taste and, for me at least, much more evocative of our dear Jane. The Fashion Museum has some fantastic examples of Georgian costume, well displayed in its historic collection. I finally I got to see some sprigged muslin  as well as an example of the longer sleeved gown Austen mentions in her letter to Cassandra of 1814 ‘I  wear my gauze gown to-day, long sleeves and all. I shall see how they succeed, but as yet I have no reason to suppose long sleeves are allowable. I have lowered the bosom, especially at the corners, and plaited black satin ribbon round the top’ 

Bath is very much Austen’s city for me, but Mr Browne, who has always maintained a keen interest in the Peninsular War, finds himself quite unable to forgive its omission from her novels. As she wrote in 1799, "How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!"


Gina Hepburn said...

Love this post! Bath is also for me Austen's city, although the Jane Austen museum at Chawton is far superior. I generally visit Bath once a year for my birthday, looking forward to it being that time again!

Michele said...

I find it interesting that you first read Austen at age 11 as I did too! Which was your first novel? Mine was Emma - though Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion are my favourites as an adult reader.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Bath, years ago. I remember the Fashion Museum, which was having a glove exhibition at the time, and how impressed I was with the quality of the embroidery and sewing in general, remembering it was all done by hand. I loved those Regency streets and imagined Jane Austen walking through them. Of course, she wasn't going to mention war, was she? Not in those novels all about getting married. ;-) the officers in, say, Pride and Prejudice, are just there to be flirted with!

Caroline Lawrence said...

I loved this post and especially your comment about craving the acerbic wit of Miss Austen as one sometimes craves a lemon sorbet.

I was lucky enough to be in Bath while one of the many Jane Austen festivals was happening. How fab to see men and women descending from horse-drawn coaches in period costume! That's the way to do it. :-)

Rachel Ward said...

What a lovely post. As a resident I am shamefully ignorant of much of this. I didn't know about Jane's time at Trim Street, and 'she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim Street' made me hoot as I used to work there quite a bit in my Council days and it was, indeed, a place of grimness.

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post Nicky x

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I couldn't agree more about the Jane Austen museum being a rip-off. I'm also a resident and am embarrassed to think they take money from visitors for what amounts to a couple of room with some extracts of her novels printed on the walls. Sorry you got caught.
In my latest novel set in Bath, The Girl in the Mask, I took great pleasure in placing my character in Trim Street which was in 1715 the latest word in posh new houses. How things change.

Leslie Wilson said...

But she does mention the Napoleonic war, though only in passing. Lydia and her husband 'when the restoration of peace dismissed them to a home,' and the whole point of Persuasion is that the navy men are at home, Captain Wentworth can go looking for a wife, and Admiral Croft rent a country house. Then, when he sees a fellow officer in Bath with his grandson he remarks: 'Ah! The peace has come too soon for that younker.' Then the militia camps, so important in Pride and Prejudice, were there because of the war. But Jane was more interested in the navy, as the sister of two navy officers, who both became Admirals in the end. I only went into the museum shop, and the atmosphere of that was bad enough. It did not tempt me to enter the museum.. however, the Georgian house at 1, Royal Crescent, I greatly enjoyed. Agree about Chawton, much better.

Nicky said...

I'm not sure any of that really qualifies Lesley, at least not as far as Mr Browne is concerned.

Leslie Wilson said...

If he's keen on the Peninsular War quite specifically, then Georgette H is surely his woman!