Jane Austen first visited Bath in 1797, staying with her uncle, James Leigh Perrot and his wife at their home in Paragon. They spent every winter in Bath, to take the waters and enjoy the fashionable social life there.
No letters that Jane Austen wrote survive for that year -1797- and so we have little evidence of her first impressions of Bath.
We can, however, guess that she saw things in this crowded, fashionable place with her unerringly clear eye for it was in 1798-99 that she wrote what was to become Northanger Abbey,a satire not only on the rage for Horrid books, but also on the busy but ultimately vacuous life to be found in Bath, husband hunting, shopping and entering into the round of fashionable entertainments…
However, some of her letters written during her second stay in Bath do survive. She travelled to the spa to stay there in some style with her brother Edward, his wife and children, Fanny and Edward, and her mother, Mrs Austen, in number 2 on this annotated 1803 map of Bath (above-do click on it to enlarge it)- in Queen’s Square.
The Austen family’s arrival in Bath was noted in the Bath Chronicle for Thursday 23rd May , 1799. A “Mr and Mrs Austin”(sic) were noted among the new arrivals to the city. On arrival in the house, Jane immediately set down to write to her sister Cassandra and it is her letter of 17th May 1799 which provides us with much information about the house, number 13 on the south side of the square :
which was to be their base for their stay of just over a month:
Well, here we are at Bath; we got here about one o’clock, and have been arrived just long enough to go over the house, fix on our rooms, and be very well pleased with the whole of it.
(One of the buildings on the south side of Queen’s Square from John Wood’s Description of Bath etc.,1765)
Queens Square was one of the first parts of Bath to be developed in the early 18th century by the architect, John Wood. It took seven years to complete – from 1728-1736- and was the first stage in the creation of the new Upper Town of Bath(the remainder was the creation of Gay Street and the Kings Circus). The concept behind the creation of the square was to provide a unifying façade to the houses so that they looked like one massive mansion on the south facing side (and indeed this range did contain a very large house for John Wood himself)
Walter Ison in his magnificently detailed book The Georgian Buildings of Bath writes about the development:
Queens Square is sited to the north-west of the old city boundaries on the high southward sloping ground which Robert Gay granted to John Wood in a series of 99 year leases…Wood envisaged the north, east and west ranges of buildings as forming a palace forecourt, the ensemble to be viewed from the south side. The magnificent north front, elaborately modeled to gain the fullest advantage of light and shade offered by a south aspect, fully realizes the body of this supposed palace, to which the east and west sides were to form wings…While the east side was carried out to this design at an early date, circumstances arose later which prevented Wood from building the complementary range. The buildings on the west side eventually took the form of a large mansion…The south side was built more or less in accordance with Wood’s original intentions
This is the plan of the square from Wood’s own book which detailed the history and the early 18th century architectural innovations designed by him, A Description of Bath etc ( 1765)
Jane Austen was pleased with the house, characteristically noting it quirks along with its good points:
We are exceedingly pleased with the house; the rooms are quite as large as we expected. Mrs. Bromley is a fat woman in mourning, and a little black kitten runs about the staircase. Elizabeth (Edward’s wife-jfw) has the apartment within the drawing-room; she wanted my mother to have it, but as there was no bed in the inner one, and the stairs are so much easier of ascent, or my mother so much stronger than in Paragon as not to regard the double flight, it is settled for us to be above, where we have two very nice-sized rooms, with dirty quilts and everything comfortable. I have the outward and larger apartment, as I ought to have; which is quite as large as our bedroom at home, and my mother’s is not materially less. The beds are both as large as any at Steventon, and I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves — so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.
She also very much preferred the views over the square towards the rising ground of the Upper Town, to the rather enclosed and dark situation of her uncle’s house in the Paragon:
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.
Though she didn’t mention it, Jane Austen’s view across the square also took in the small square of grass in the centre of the square and its obelisk, commemorating Frederick, Prince of Wales the father of George III:
Queen’s Square is charmingly situated and composed of elegant buildings which display all the grandeur of architectural excellence. It was designed by Wood, to whose professional taste and spirit Bath owes so much. In the area is a pleasure-ground, enclosed by iron palisades, adorned in the centre with an obelisk seventy feet high shaped and pointed like a bookbinders needle and charged with the following inscription:
In memory of humours conferred,
And in gratitude
For benefits bestowed
In this city
By his Royal Highness
FREDERICK PRINCE OF WALES
in the year MDCCXXXVII.
This Obelisk is erected
by RICHARD NASH esq,
(See The Guide to all the Watering and Sea -bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham)
For Mrs Austen,the Square-so called for it was the first of the important squares to be built in Bath, remained THE place to stay: in 1801 when they were trying to find somewhere to live in Bath upon the Reverend George Austen’s retirement, Jane wrote almost despairingly to Cassandra that:
My mother hankers after The Square dreadfully and it is but natural to suppose my Uncle will take her part…
(Letter to Cassandra Austen, dated 21st January 1801)
Of course by the time Jane Austen was writing Persuasion – in 1815-16- The Square was one of the oldest of the new developments in Bath: it was far more fashionable to live higher up in the new town with its crescents and pleasant outlooks across the city and the river. Which allowed her to make a small joke at her mother’s expense when the fashionably minded Musgrove girls declare that Queens Square is too old-fashioned for them to contemplate as a place to stay in Bath for the winter season:
I hope we shall be in Bath in the winter; but remember, papa, if we do go, we must be in a good situation: none of your Queen-squares for us!
Persuasion, Chapter 6
The Austen’s stay in Bath ended in late June and Jane Austen returned to Steventon-away from the glare of Bath in the summer. And she could joke to Cassandra that she had better prepare a good meal for them as they were used to high level of living in Bath:
You must give something very nice for we are used to live well
(See Letter to Cassandra dated 19th June 1799)
I daresay had she been presented only with a dish of bread and cheese, the fact that she was back in her beloved Steventon home would have made it seem like a feast.