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Jane Austen’s aunt and uncle James Leigh Perrott and his wife lived during the winter season, at Number 1, the Paragon which they rented from 1797 until 1810 when they moved to a house they had purchased in Great Pultney Street.
Jane Austen stayed with them there in 1797 and also in 1801 when the Austen’s first left Steventon upon Mr Austens retirement, so that they could have a base while they were house hunting for a suitable place to live in Bath.
The Paragon was built on ground originally owned by a Mrs Hooper who had granted a lease of it for 99 years to Thomas Warr Attwood, who intended to develop it. The Mayor and corporation of Bath approved Attwood’s plan in 1768. As you can see from the section of the 1803 map of Bath, above, the site is long and narrow-set between two roads. It was also a difficult site, and this is something the map cannot convey: it was set on a very steep slope-the land falls away quite dramatically towards Cornwall Road.
The Paragon ..begin sites on a narrow strip of land sloping between two roads having a difference of some 40 feet in their levels, and while the main front towards London Road presents a normal appearance, at the rear is a great substructure of vaults supporting the hanging gardens entered from the basements of the houses.
(Walter Ison,The Georgian Buildings of Bath, page 109)
It has to be admitted that Jane Austen was not in a good fame of mind when she stayed there in 1801. She had been rather forced to leave her beloved Steventon home, their friends and neighbours and the surrounding countryside, against her will. She was a self confessed “Desperate Walker” and being hemmed in, in a town, by houses and buildings, however grand , must have felt oppressive to her.
It appears she and Cassandra were not privy to the conversations Mr and Mrs Austen held regarding the move to Bath, (both being absent from home at the time) and family tradition has it that on hearing the news put rather brutally to her by Mrs Austen, Jane fainted :
As she and Martha arrived from Ibthorpe early in December( 1800-jfw) they were met in the rectory hall by Mrs Austen, who greeted them with : “Well, girls, it is all settled, we have decided to leave Steventon in such a week and go to Bath”- and to Jane the shock of this intelligence was so great that she fainted away. Mary Lloyd( wife of James Austen-JW) who was also present to greet her sister, remembered that Jane was greatly distressed”
(See Page 128 Jane Austen: A Family Record, Deirdre Le Faye)
Her letters written during this period seethe with discontent in my opinion, and she feared remaining in the vicinity of Axford Buildings and the Paragon, for its closeness to her Aunt Leigh Perrot with whom she always had strained relationship , Mrs Leigh Perrot being , in my view,a manipulative and difficult character:
We know that Mrs. Perrot will want to get us into Axford Buildings, but we all unite in particular dislike of that part of the town, and therefore hope to escape…
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 3rd January 1801)
Why did Jane Austen (and presumably Mr Austen and Cassandra)dislike that part of town so much ? I think it seems she felt the situation was restrictive. Look at this extract from her letter of 1799 written from the more open surroundings of Queen’s Square:
I like our situation very much; it is far more cheerful than Paragon, and the prospect from the drawing-room window, at which I now write, is rather picturesque, as it commands a prospective view of the left side of Brock Street, broken by three Lombardy poplars in the garden of the last house in Queen’s Parade.
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 17th May, 1799)
The houses in Paragon and the adjoining Axford Buildings looked out on to a busy road –the Paragon and Axford Buildings led down to the London Road , the main connecting thoroughfare with London which would have been very busy with horses, private coaches, waggons and, of course, mail coaches.
The intriguing feature of the buildings in this area was that they were built with the best and largest rooms facing the rear of the property, not the road, as was more usual in Bath. The reason was of course to be able to give the best rooms the best view, down the hill towards the River Avon:
Upon this long and narrow site sloping between two curving roads of different levels Attwood built the fine crescent of twenty one houses which he named Paragon Buildings, a costly speculation involving a massive substructure of retaining walls and vaults which were intended to be let for storage purposes. As in the similarly sited range of Belmont, the houses were planed with staircases rising towards the street front so that the principal rooms at the back overlook the extensive prospect of the Avon valley.
(See Walter Ison, The Georgian Buildings of Bath page 157)
The rooms at the front, facing the road were likely therfore to be darker, smaller, noisy and having a prospect only of the rear of the houses built in Belmont .
I feel almost certain that as the youngest unmarried daughter who was somewhat prickly towards her Aunt, Jane Austen may have been given one of these dark and noisy rooms when she stayed at the Paragon ……as someone who appreciated open views and space she must have felt very oppressed by the situation and I sympathize with her.
Another building that may have irritated her in the Paragon area was the chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon, now the premises of the Building of Bath Museum owned and organized by the Bath Preservation Trust
Go here to read a description of the history of this Evangelical church,which was organised by the indefatigable Countess,and which still exists.
Jane Austen disliked the evangelical movement,especially that within the Church of England.
I do not like the Evangelicals.”
(See Letter to Cassandra dated January 24, 1809)
The closest she could get to openly admiring it was this rather grudging admission expressed in this extract from her letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, written when Fanny was considering marring an Evangelical gentleman:
“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest.”
(See letter to Fanny Knight , dated November 18, 1814 )
Being in the very close vicinity of The Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel may have also added to her dislike of the area. In my humble opinion. It would have been a constant irritant…..
But luckily for Jane, the Austens did not settle there at all…they moved almost as far away as they could, to the very outskirts of Bath in Sydney Place, which will be the topic of our next post in this series.