In the early 1800s, almost 1,300 years after the Romans left the recreational spa city of Bath in southwest England, a woman wrote of its “fine and striking environs” and fashionable society. It was in Bath that Jane Austen finished her first manuscript, the posthumously published Northanger Abbey.
Today, in the city she called home for five years, a three-storey museum celebrates all things Austen. The Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street is a place of utmost reverence to those who like the author’s work or dream of leisurely teas, grand balls, breaking feminine social stereotypes, or romancing an unpredictable man like Mr. Darcy. Guilty of all of the above, I obviously had to step inside.
As I entered, I was greeted by an actress playing Elinor Dashwood, the most level-headed of the three Dashwood sisters in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. She talked about the life and works of her creator, setting the scene for the next few hours. After this introduction, I walked through a corridor, arriving at a hall with newspapers, fine china, and fashionable clothing from Austen’s time—the sophisticated and stylish Regency era of the 1800s—alongside costumes from the movie adaptations of her novels. Of the more personal memorabilia on display was the famous portrait of the author made by her sister Cassandra, and handwritten letters exchanged between them. The proper, eloquent, yet passionate and playful side of Austen comes across in those letters. Reading them, I realised that each of Austen’s heroines had a fragment of herself, while every elder sister was a reflection, in part, of her own Cassandra.
Nodding to a jolly Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, I came to a room that replicated Austen’s study, which had a dark wooden desk with an inkpot, quill and pieces of parchment. While my own sense (and sensibility) had long been persuasion enough to move on from dreams of a brooding hero, I couldn’t resist sitting at the desk to write a love note to my own imaginary Mr. Darcy.
A cupboard of vintage clothing beckoned as I stepped out of the study. A board provided instructions on how to flirt, be coy, or drive away a suitor with the flick of the wrist and furl of a fan. I tried on a bonnet, wrap, and skirt.
Inspired by my newly acquired fan-handling skills, I bought a delicate lace fan from the souvenir shop on the ground floor, before heading to the third-floor Regency Tea Room. This quaint little tea room, filled with portraits of Austen characters, offers 15 brews of tea and coffee accompanied by classic English teatime treats like scones with clotted cream, jam tarts, and sandwiches. I picked a tart from the three-tier tea tray as I sipped on my Earl Grey from a fine china cup. Sighing, my Austen-loving soul sated, I felt thankful that in some parts of the world, afternoon tea is still no trivial matter.
First appeared in the July 2015 issue as “Austen’s Powers”.
Getting there Bath is in England, 164km/3 hours from London. Regular coach and train services are available.
Hours Daily 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m; varies seasonally. Closed 25-26 Dec and 1 Jan.
Cost Adults £7-9/₹780-880; children 6-16 £5.50/₹540; family of four £23/₹2,250. Tickets at the centre or online at www.janeausten.co.uk.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.