Sunday, 24 January 2010

Dear Jane*

*Austen, that is.

The celebrated novelist was once a resident of Bath, so of course they have a Jane Austen Centre for tourists to visit. This museum / tea house / shop is at #40 Gay Street, a house similar to #20-something on the same street, where Jane lived at one time.

I was rather startled by a statue near the entrance!

After purchasing a ticket in the shop, one is sent upstairs to wait in a room for a guide to come up and give a lecture. There are various drawings and silhouettes depicting how Jane might have looked, depending upon the skill or lack of her sister, Cassandra, who did her watercolour portrait from which there have been various other interpretations; also a sampler that Jane worked and various other items.

Bill and I both thought the museum had got rather caught up with modern media as various scenes showing Emma Thompson and Colin Firth were about. Whoever stocks the shop also apparently fancies Mr. Darcy something awful. I was quite tempted by Jane Austen’s Sewing Book, full of projects as mentioned in her novels; also by the old fashioned pens but then I realized they were a sharp object likely to be banned by airport security, and so I managed to escape without buying anything.

I thought the lecture was the best part of the museum, but there was a lot to see as well. The film on the website linked above shows quite a bit of it, so I've not added pictures that are of the same. [Be sure to spot the Bath Bun in the tea shop!] In addition to examples of various styles of everyone's dress there was information about card playing and pipe smoking, a display of one of Jane’s letters to her sister, bits about social customs and an explanation of ‘language of the fan.’ There was a discussion of the custom of taking tea at the Assembly Rooms:

Tea at the Assembly Rooms was served at 9pm in the Tea Room. It was rumoured that they used the tea three times over; they were sold to the guests first, then dried out and sold to the staff. Finally, they were dried out again and sold to the general public!
Bill manages to throw away my tea bags before I even have a chance at a second use!

Like a good student, I took notes during the lecture. In checking with other sources, to clarify some of those notes, I find there is conflicting information, so best not rely too much on the details! Still, I really enjoyed the lecture and so will share my version of it:

Two of Jane’s novels are set in or feature Bath, and I'm looking forward to re-reading them to see what I can recognize from our visit. When she wrote Northanger Abbey, in 1797, she’d visited Bath and liked it. In her last novel, Persuasion, written 18 years later when she had lived there, she didn’t much care for Bath at all.

Jane was a writer from an early age, having written at age 11 a book called History of England (without many dates, she says). I flipped through a copy which seemed even at that early age to take a satirical view of a list of historical figures.

Jane was born in 1775, the 7th of 8 children. Cassandra, two years her elder, was her only sister and best friend; they both died unmarried. Much of what is known about Jane is through her letters to Cassandra when they lived apart.

The 2 brothers born either side of Jane both joined the Navy and did well. Not much is known of the 2nd eldest brother, George, though he lived to his 70s. The eldest was 10 years older than Jane and was a member of the clergy, as was her father and the 4th son, Henry, after an unsuccessful stint in banking. Henry was the brother Jane was closest to and was responsible for getting her work published. The third son, Edward, had the unusual fortune to be adopted by a very wealthy family who lacked an heir and eventually changed his surname from Austen to Knight.

Jane’s parents were married in Bath; we later learned this was at St Swithin’s when we took a booklet guided walk the next day. Mr. Austen died very suddenly in 1885 after the family had moved to Bath from someplace I didn’t write down; he is buried in the graveyard across the main road from St. Swithin’s.

The lecture included a list of houses at which the Austen’s lived before and after Mr. A’s death, some of which no longer stand, some are private homes and one is a dentist’s office. We never did hunt those addresses as I thought we might. Having been made poorer by the father’s death, the family moved to less and less prestigious houses, though never into truly awful conditions. It would seem that either living amongst the Bath society or having slid down the social scale a bit caused Jane to dislike Bath and the rich, showy people she encountered. They became the target for her satire.

It was in a cottage supplied rent-free by her wealthy brother, Edward Knight, that Jane spent her last years, having found herself in reduced circumstances. Edward’s estate was at Chawton, near Alton, in the South of England. Jane died in 1817 at the age of 41, from Addison’s Disease, something to do with the adrenal glands according to the lecturer. She is buried at Winchester Cathedral near there, next to her brother, Henry.

Jane was always very private about her writing and never saw her name in print. She requested that the door hinges of her bedroom not be oiled so that she would hear anyone come in and could hide the small (about paperback book sized) pages which she covered in very small writing, possibly because paper was expensive in those days. It was only through her brother Henry’s insistence that the novels were ever submitted to a publisher and apparently there were rejections!

In 1811, Sense and Sensibility was published as having been written ‘By a Lady’. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, ‘By the Author of Sense & Sensibility’. The Prince Regent was a fan and requested a dedication in her books to him. That she did not admire the man and did so grudgingly is evident in her dedication:


This work is,
most respectfully
By his Royal Highness's
and obedient
humble servant,
The Author.

Jane’s name was only made public when her novels written first and last, the two referring to Bath, were published after her death. Even for those books published during her lifetime, she had had to supply a large portion of the initial publishing costs, not an uncommon practice of that time. She did have some income from the royalties of her published works, but this wasn’t apparently a great deal of money.

Her work is no longer under copyright, which was in any case sold by her family long ago. There was a film of an older woman, a distant cousin descended from one of Jane’s brothers, who lives in Lyme Regis, telling about how that place was one of Jane’s favourite vacation spots. The lack of copyright, the lecturer pointed out, may account for part of the work’s popularity with movie makers, the most recent film being ‘Becoming Jane’ with Ann Hathaway, which I think I may have to track down.

There is an incredible amount of information about Jane Austen on the internet, so if she is one of your passions, you're very lucky!


Toad said...

I remember purchasing Northhanger Abbey there, once upon a time. Sadly, it's the only one of Jane's book, I just cannot get through.

I too enjoyed the tour. Thank you for the reminder.

TKW said...

You just made this rabid Jane Austen fan swoon!!!!!! Thank you!

Pauline Wiles said...

Oh, good stuff! I've been to Bath a couple of days but it must have been before I "discovered" Austen. One of the items on my bucket list is to read all of her novels, in order.

Joanne said...

Just bought a book with three of Jane's storys. It is in my stack to read. This information will move it up in the stack.

Shelley said...

Toad - I gather from the lecturer that Mansfield Park is the least popular of her works. Must admit (shamefully) that the plots of her books melt together for me. I love reading her work, I just don't find the specifics that memorable. Perhaps that will change when I re-read the ones about Bath.