This week has been a whirl of interesting goings-on mostly in the company of Karen from BookishNYC, and should you consider it has all been devoted to mindless pleasure, then think again….a lot of the gadding about will eventually be shared with you, for nearly everything done this week had a link to Jane Austen (of course!).
I’ll be posting about the places we visited soon but today I thought I’d carry on where the last post left off.
This is the view of Bath that Catherine Morland,Eleanor and Henry Tilney would have seen when they reached to the top of Beechen Cliff in Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey. ( Do note all the illustrations in this post can be enlarged merely by clicking on them.)
The Tilneys called for her at the appointed time; and no new difficulty arising, no sudden recollection, no unexpected summons, no impertinent intrusion to disconcert their measures, my heroine was most unnaturally able to fulfil her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself. They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.
Again the view is taken from my copy of John Britton and Thomas Shepherd’s book, Bath and Bristol illustrated with views of Somerset and Gloucestershire (1829)
This 1803 map of Bath is annotated with the route the Tilneys would have taken from their lodgings in Milsom Street
to Bathwick via Pulteney Street.
This is John Britton’s description of the walk and the view ; indeed he writes about the same route that Henry, Eleanor and Catherine would have taken, from Pulteney Street:
Among the pleasing excursions with which the neighbourhood of Bath abounds, none are superior in interest to those of its eastern vicinity; and of these the most attractive terminates near the pace where this view is taken. Our journey commences by passing over the Bridge to Laura Place Great Putney Street Bathwick and thence to Bath Hampton from which the village we are conducted either to the raceground by ascending to the right or pass through a range of beautiful meadows near the river to the village of Claverton…If the beautiful scenes which have given so much interest to this short excursions do not determine us to retrace our steps we shall proceed over Claverton Downs and after enjoying many pleasing views of the city, arrive at the noted station of Beechen Cliff, which commands and extensive view of Bath, with the Abbey Church nearly in the centre forming a most interesting object in the picture; and surrounding in every direction by extensive ranges of elegant houses: beyond the Abbey Church appears the Circus, The Crescent, Marlborough Buildings and St James Square with Camden Place to the right towards the London Road and other Splendid buildings
This map by John Cary of 1812 showing The Environs of Bath, is annotated with the route the Tilneys and Catherine would have taken.
John Britton is far less critical than Henry and Eleanor Tilney were of the view:
They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing — nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance…
Henry and Eleanor are, of course, talking the language of The Picturesque, as promulgated by one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers, the Reverend William Gilpin. In his series of books devoted to viewing the English countryside while on his travels, he describes the views to be seen in terms of how they should be recorded in art. Very useful, but while he does this he manages sometimes to make the most amazingly pompous statements dismissing certain magnificent aspects of the British scenery as unworthy of note as it did not comply with the rules demanded by adherents of the Picturesque
Here is a small but typical example of his style in an extract from his book, Observations on the Western Parts of England etc., where he explains with withering references to the rather beautiful Isle of Wight-The Isle– what he means by Picturesque Beauty:
Picturesque beauty is a phrase but little understood. We precisely mean by it that kid of beauty which would look well in a picture. Neither grounds laid out by art nor improved by agriculture are of this kind. The Isle of Wight is in fact, a large garden or rather a field which in every part has been disfigured by the spade,the coulter and the harrow. It abounds much more in tillage than in pasturage; and of all species of cultivation, cornfields are the most unpicturesque.The regualrtiy of corn fields disgusts,and is out of true with everything else….
I love his style. And I think Jane Austen did too. But I don’t consider she worshipped his every word, slavishly. Oh, no. I think she loved him for his pompous attitude ,which is unintentionally funny. He absolutely brooks no argument whatsoever and dismisses out of hand any natural feature that does not measure up to his ideal of the picturesque. The Tilneys are obviously Gilpin disciples: they were also able to dismiss a relatively stunning scene-the view of the city of Bath from Beechen Cliff-as not worthy of being captured by art. Jane Austen quietly pokes fun at them and him, for as she knew well, the view from Beechen Cliff is and was magnificent, frankly, having regard not just to natural but t also to man made beauty.
So there you are: a trip around Beechen Cliff in the critical company of the Gilpin inspired Tilneys.I hope you enjoyed it.