Posted: 28th Aug 2015
Topic: The Life of Jane
The other day, as I basked in Champneys’ outdoor jacuzzi, my thoughts turned to Jane Austen and her ambivalence towards Bath, spa capital of England during the 17th and 18th centuries.
What was it that soured the place for her? The memory of her father’s unexpected death there in 1805, and the financially distressed, semi-nomadic years that followed? The sharp contrast between society’s haves and have-nots, reflected in where you lived, what you wore and how you spent your time? Or the surfeit of invalids – especially when you already suffered from a hypochondriac mother?
Her ambivalence can be gleaned from her letters, and from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – the bookends of her writing life, published together in a four-volume set after her death. And let’s not forget the unfinished Sanditon: nothing to do with Bath itself, but a merciless satire on health and hydrotherapy.
What would Jane have made of Champneys, or any other modern spa experience? I suspect she would have recognised that same heady blend of convalescence and conversation, and loved it – especially if she was with Cassandra.
I went with my daughter – a first visit for both of us – and we had great fun indulging ourselves with a programme of pampering, walking in the surrounding parkland, and speculating on the secret lives of our fellow inmates. Unlike Bath in Jane’s time, of course, the modern spa promotes equality of dress – in our case, voluminous white towelling robes and flip-flops. Only the odd flash of 24-carat bling separates the sheep from the goats!
I do have some further theories about Jane’s attitude to Bath. Fashionable spa towns must have seemed artificial and ineffective when compared to the rejuvenating effect of sea air and sea bathing. You only have to read Persuasion, or watch in particular the seaside scenes in the 1995 film version, to understand that.
And then there’s that cryptic reference by Cassandra to the young gentleman Jane met while holidaying at Sidmouth, a seaside town in Devon, in 1801 – shortly after she moved to Bath with her parents. The attraction was mutual, and Cassandra felt sure that it would go further. Sadly, after the young man left Sidmouth to continue his travels, they had news that he died very suddenly.
Perhaps, in the end, Jane’s view of Bath was tarnished by the loss of love beside the sea.