“Bath”, Jane Austen wrote in a letter to a friend during her time there, “is still Bath.” Austen, one of Georgian and Regency England’s most astute satirists, used Bath as the setting for parts of two of her novels. Both the early sections of “Northanger Abbey” and the later section of “Persuasion” are set against Bath’s fashionable backdrop. Austen’s family moved to Bath in 1801; her parents had been married there, and the family had visited many times.
While in Bath, Austen worked on the book that would eventually become “Northanger Abbey”, together with an unpublished novel, “The Watsons”. During this period, Austen also received a proposal of marriage from a family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither. Although she initially accepted, Austen soon changed her mind and returned to Bath with her family. In 1806, following the death of Jane’s father George Austen, the family moved once again, this time to Southampton. Although Bath in Austen’s era is often referred to as “Regency Bath”, the duration of her stay, from 1801 to 1806, technically places her time there slightly before the Regency period.
During the early 19th century, Bath offered unparalleled material for an observer as keen as Austen. Even before the arrival of the Romans, the town, with its natural hot springs, had been sacred to the Celtic goddess Sulis. The Romans converted the hot springs into a temple and bath complex, parts of which can still be seen today. In Austen’s time, the spring water was believed to have healthy properties. Jane’s brother Edward Austen was one of the many people who sought relief from health problems by “taking the waters” at Bath. Bath became a fashionable resort for society’s upper classes.
For Austen, then, Bath was a perfect microcosm to explore the attractions of high society — and to skewer the pretensions of those who flocked to the fashionable resort in order to see and be seen.
Today, Austen’s time in Bath is one of the city’s attractions. Sites mentioned in Austen’s novels, such as the Pump Room, attract devotees of the author, while the Georgian architecture of buildings such as the Royal Crescent evoke the prosperity of the city in Austen’s era.
Austen’s Bath is specifically commemorated by the work of the Jane Austen Centre, a museum and visitor centre chronicling Austen’s stay in Bath and the history of the city during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Centre also organises an annual week-long Jane Austen festival, with a variety of events bringing Georgian Bath to life.
In addition to the attractions of the spring water, Bath also hosted what Austen described as “the honest relish of balls and plays”. This popularity led to the construction of elegant new Georgian homes and hotels in Bath.