What do you get when you combine the setting for several of Jane Austen’s books and the most famous Roman baths in the world? You either get a fantastic tale of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett meeting after a day of soaking and massages or an exploration of the English city of Bath.
Bath was founded as a – shockingly – Roman bath town in the year 60, built over the natural hot spring that emerges here before flowing into the River Avon. Pre-Roman peoples has worshipped their goddess Sulis here, believing the waters to be sacred. Romans merged Sulis with their own goddess Minerva, and created Aquae Sulis, the “waters of Sulis” dedicated to Sulis Minerva. Romans came from all over the empire to take in the sacred waters here, believed to have healing powers even until modern times.
The sacred waters of Aquae Sulis flow even today!
1,740 years later, a man named George Austen retired from the ministry in Steventon and moved his family to Bath, one of the focal points of upper crust society in England in the day, similar to what the Gold Coast or Newport would be for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s peers. Among them, his daughter Jane, an aspiring writer. While the period here would be a difficult one for Jane Austen – her father died suddenly and the family was left nearly destitute – Bath would play a large role in her writings, featuring prominently in several of her books, loved for two hundred years as classics.
Armed with these two little bits of history, I took the short (12 minute) train from my base in Bristol on England’s west coast to spend a day in Bath. Even the falling rain could do nothing to sully the beauty of the city. It is, in a word, stunning. Stone buildings, narrow roads, and the unique architecture of row houses in crescents make each step one of discovery, my head turning each way, eyes bright from my smile. Bath is old, it is new, and it is perfect. But I am here for two things: the Roman baths and Jane Austen.
The Circus, some of Bath’s famous crescent shaped houses
The baths are the focal point of the city, and have been since Roman times. Shockingly, much of the facility survives (and is in fairly good repair), and visitors are treated to a truly amazing experience of seeing what could be a lavish spa today, but is two thousand years old. The audio tour is full of facts, the exhibits are well curated, and screens are set up all over to show what various rooms and views would have been like at the height of Roman Britain.
This is what would have been a massage room, with a screen showing it as it would have been.
Admission is a bit steep, at £18-20 depending on the day, but so in depth is the tour that one can easily spend a few hours soaking – get it? – in the Roman culture. The highlight is, of course, the various rooms of the baths, but don’t miss learning all about the temple complex, or special exhibits on construction techniques and even specific people connected to the area. For kids, cartoon characters will guide their experience!
At the end of the tour, visitors can taste the water from the springs, which even today is busy pumping water out. Let’s just say the mineral content is easy to detect. Perhaps this is why it has been believed to have curative abilities. The Bath Abbey was even built over the springs in order to incorporate their restorative qualities into Christian prayer.
The Bath Abbey looks out over the main pool of the bathhouse.
It is the importance of the waters that kept Bath relevant in 1800 when the Austen family relocated there. The Jane Austen Centre tells her story, with characters in period dress explaining both the family history and the significance of Bath to her work. In 1811, Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It was done on commission through her brother Henry as women didn’t have the power to sign contracts, and published simply “by a lady” rather than with her name. It was a hit among young aristocratics, and her career was born.
The Jane Austen Centre
While her subsequent novels were also successes – the rights to Pride and Prejudice were sold for £110, a large sum in the day – it wasn’t until after Austen’s death in 1817 that her brother Henry and sister Cassandra published works in her name. It is unknown whether the idea to originally publish anonymously was Austen’s (she didn’t seem to relish publicity) or that of the publicists themselves refusing to use a woman’s name.
Only four novels were published during Austen’s lifetime, with the subsequent publishings of the “Bath novels” Northanger Abbey and Persuasion happening the following year, and a final novel, Lady Susan, reaching publication in 1871. The Jane Austen Centre includes passages from these, with their locations on a map for the ultimate Jane Austen walking tour of both her homes in the city and settings of her books.
Dressing up in period clothes is part of the fun!
Sadly, there are few actual artifacts on display. Manuscripts were considered worthless and not kept, so only her correspondences (largely with Cassandra) have survived. But Jane Austen was without question one of the most influential writers in England during the period (and perhaps ever), and the Centre pays an appropriate tribute.
It is easy to see why Bath has remained relevant for nearly 2,000 years. The springs that ultimately gave the town its name continued to attract the well-to-do, including one of the most amazing writers of her time. And still, we flock to the city! You definitely should.
Note: thank you to Visit Bath for arranging for a press pass for me to see both of these amazing sites!
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