BATH VOICE: Georgian Bath was smelly, dangerous and dirty – so unlike the friendly characters in the Jane Austen Centre

From left: Mr Darcy, Mrs Bennet and George Knightley at the Jane Austen Centre

By Harry Mottram: Like many people I’ve passed the Jane Austen Centre many times without having visited.
Since I’m midway through the Jane Austen novel Northanger Abbey I decided to pop in one wet March afternoon to see if I could meet the great author.
Sadly the writer of a string of classic novels had a day off but I did catch up with Jackie Herring who is Mrs Bennet to the visitors.
“Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey would have noticed that the traffic today is just as bad as it was in her day,” she said, “but the centre of Bath was also like a building site in Jane Austen’s time with speculative building go up everywhere.
“It would also have been very dirty and dangerous with animals making a mess. That was one of the reasons why sedan chairs were used so the well heeled wealthy didn’t have to put their feet down in the muck or allow their dresses to pick up mud.”
The former director of the Jane Austen Festival spends one day a week with her work husband Mr Bennet at the centre following retirement and clearly enjoys her role as the sufferer of palpitations and agent for her daughters’ marriage prospects.
Another character who enjoys welcoming visitors – this time from the novel Emma – was my tour guide George Knightley (Martin Williamson in real life).
His talk on the Austen family and the various relatives is worth the ticket money alone which for someone of my advanced age is £11.50.
I mentioned I was reading Northanger Abbey.
“It was a send up of popular Gothic novels,” he exclaimed, “although it was written in 1803 it was published after Jane’s death in 1817.”
Following his talk I took in the huge amount of information available as videos, exhibits, paintings and prints, ending up via the tea rooms in the gift shop.
But not before meeting Fitzwilliam Darcy who it is fair to say, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good looks and a good job at the Jane Austen Centre, must be in want of a wife.

The play is on tour until April – see https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/an-hour-and-a-half-late

Harry Mottram is the news editor of Bath Voice monthly magazine covers news, views, reviews, previews and features as well as what’s on in Bath and events for residents in Bear Flat, Widcombe and Oldfield Park and the wider Bath area. Delivered door to door in south Bath and available in shops and supermarkets. See the Facebook site for details.

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