I should have read Persuasion a long time ago – after all Jane Austen is the eminent English novelist, according to Leavis, and others. In the end it was the gift of a Kindle and the offer of a free book that dragged me in – though I’m glad it did.
Persuasion is set in Bath, my current home, and is even more closely linked with the city than Northanger Abbey which features Milsom Street and the Assembly Rooms – great Bath landmarks. There is a sort of weird interest in that: I read the book in Australia partly flying from Sydney to Byron Bay, and had some fun, at a distance, in trying to remember the streets and place names Austen mentions.
In Persuasion these places are important – they reflect quite clearly the social – well mostly financial I suppose – status of the different characters when they come to Bath, which is where much of the story takes place. Admiral Croft, whose wealth has allowed him to rent Sir Walter’s country estate, chooses a spot on Gay Street. This adjoins the Circle, leading down from there to the city centre. It’s at the heart of Georgian Bath. A house on the West side would have especially beautiful open views across parkland and fields – Victoria Park lies just beyond the gardens. At the bottom of Gay Street – next to Queen’s Square – you’ll currently find the Jane Austen centre, a small museum dedicated to the writer. Apparently Austen herself rented three rooms higher up on Gay Street in the house that is now my dentist’s surgery! It’s on the East side though.
Sir Walter himself, the heroine’s foolish, snobbish, spendthrift father chooses to rent in Camden Place. This is a beautiful Georgian crescent, not as impressive as The Royal Crescent, but with stunning views across the city. (In Austen’s day there was little development over on the south side of the river. Now the city extends all along the southern bank and up into the hills, so ironically houses on the south have the best views in town, whilst Camden Place looks across at Victorian, Edwardian and modern housing sprawling across the hillside.)
Anne’s confidante, the rather more sober Lady Russell, has a place in Rivers Street which reflects her sober judgement and character. These are smaller houses hidden in the Georgian part of town. Rivers Street itself runs along the top of Catharine Place, a small but beautiful park enclosed by Georgian Terraces – probably one of the best spots in Bath now – unspoiled Georgian splendour, close to bijou restaurants and pretty art galleries, with fewer tourists.
Finally Mrs Smith, Anne’s old school friend, who plays such a significant part in the denouement of the novel and in exposing the wickedness of Mr Elliot, is lodging in the centre of town. Westgate Buildings is far too close to the centre and the bustle of the working classes. Anne herself is not enamoured of Bath: Austen mentions her “disinclination” to visit, describing the extensive buildings, smoking in rain. Bath has been cleaned up now so we can admire the almost golden stone it is built of, but in Austen’s day smoke would have hung across the valley floor, trapped by the surrounding hills, and the houses would have been black and grimy.
For Anne and for Austen Bath epitomised the foolish and shallow world of fashion. Now it’s a university town with its fair share of moral turpitude, snobbery and hypocrisy, a place where money and poverty stand side by side and mostly seem to rub along, like two trains standing at the same station, but on different tracks.