Bath is a spa city on the River Avon which was known in Roman times as Aquae Sulis. During the eighteenth century it was rebuilt in Palladian style. Laura Place was designed by Thomas Baldwin and John Eveleigh between 1788 and 1794. It lies at the end of Pulteney Bridge and consists of four blocks of houses around an irregular quadrangle with a fountain which was added in the late nineteenth century.
Literary references to Bath are too numerous to sum up. One of the early mentions of the city dates back to Geoffrey Chaucer. The best-known pilgrim in his collection of Canterbury tales is Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, a bawdy female who is the very antithesis of virtuous womanhood. In her delightful tale she challenges all contemporary wisdom about the female role in society. The Wife of Bath claims to be an expert on married life having had five husbands (her first at the age of twelve). She ridicules virginity and poses the question: what are genitals for if not for procreation? She insists that street knowledge and experience outweigh the wisdom of scripture and tradition. The Wife of Bath probably lived in the parish of St Michael without the Walls (now: the area around North Gate Street). The more recent history of the city is closely associated with the arrival of one figure in particular – Richard Nash.
Poor health drove novelist Oliver Goldsmith to Bath in the summer of 1762. There he gained access to the papers of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, and collected anecdotes from witnesses about this legendary figure who had recently died. On 14 October 1762 The Life of Richard Nash was published and a second edition appeared in December. Swansea-born Richard Nash was the son of a glass maker of modest means, but he received nevertheless a sound education and matriculated from Jesus College in March 1692 with the idea of pursuing a legal career. However, for Richard, Oxford’s attractions were not intellectual but social. In 1695 Nash supervised a successful pageant held in honour of William III. It was the start of a career in which he acquired the reputation as the ‘Prince of High Fashion’. By 1705 Nash had moved to Bath. The sudden rise of this city was due in part to William’s heir, Queen Anne, who visited the spa in 1702 and 1703. The Queen’s stay at what was then a relatively poor resort prompted the arrival of well-to-do guests who were keen to drink the Bath waters and be entertained. Nash was appointed assistant to the Master of Ceremonies, a man named Captain Webster. When the latter was killed in a duel, Nash took over the main role and began to transform the city into the most fashionable place in England. Music performances which had previously been played in an open space called the Grove were removed to the grand Pump Room. By late 1705 Nash was appointed Master of Ceremonies, a post he would hold for over half a century. He was, in his own words, ‘a beau of three generations’.
Nash appreciated the importance of establishing a strong physical presence. Dress was central to developing a distinctive appearance by which he underpinned his career as a self-publicist. From the start he cultivated the image of a dandy (although the word itself was coined later). Fashion decreed that wigs should be white. Nash insisted on wearing a black wig with a contrasting white hat. He finished this off with brocaded waistcoats and ruffled shirts. Before long, men were copying his style. His laws were so strictly enforced that he was styled ‘King of Bath’. Well into old age Nash retained his youthful attachment to fine clothes complemented by a cane and a white beaver hat which had become symbolic of his majestic position. He organized magnificent public balls, on a scale which had never been witnessed before in Bath. Nash matched ladies with dancing partners and even brokered marriages. He raised capital to improve the roads in and around the city and encouraged the design of new public buildings. He met all fresh arrivals into the city in order to judge their social standing. Although himself a heavy gambler, he regulated gaming in the city. Gambling had frequently led to disputes and the use of arms in Bath. Nash banned the wearing of swords, initially in public rooms alone, and later in the city as a whole. The Corporation of Bath was delighted with the efforts Nash made on behalf of the town. In his honour a full marble statue of him was erected in the Pump Room. It was placed between the busts of Newton and Pope.
Bath became a cultural centre, a place for the wealthy to seek the healing agents of the water and air, while increasing their society and social status. During the late eighteenth century, some 40,000 visitors come to the city each year. Richardson and Sterne were among the regulars. Burke and Goldsmith had lived in North Parade, Sheridan in the Royal Crescent (at no. 11), and young Horatio Nelson had a house in Pierrepont Street. Bath became, after London, the most memorialized city in Britain. Apart from numerous guide-books and directories, the city provoked an unparalleled mass of writing. The city appeared in prose, poetry, drama (Foote’s The Maid of Bath, 1771), satire, sermons and moral tales. Painters and print-makers recorded its splendours for a mass market, and cartoonists poked fun at the goings-on in Britain’s premier spa resort. In 1798, caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson produced a series of twelve satiric prints ‘The Comforts of Bath’. He depicted both the social and medical scene in the city just before the period described by Jane Austen in her novels. The pages of Austen’s work are filled with references to places in Bath: the Octagon rooms, the Lower rooms, Edgar’s Buildings, Laura-place, and Market-place in her first novel Northanger Abbey; Camden Place, Bond Street, the baths and Westgate buildings, the colonnade on Bath Street, and the famous Union Street where Captain Wentworth declares his love for Anne in Persuasion, the last novel she wrote. As any Londoner will testify, status is defined by one’s post-code. A house is more than just a home; its location is a signal of social hierarchy, an emblem of elevation or degradation. There is nothing new in that. Jane Austen used the topographic characteristics of Bath to symbolize social hierarchy in Persuasion. Sir Walter chooses a ‘very good house in Camdenplace, a lofty, digniﬁed situation, such as becomes a man of consequence’ as his temporary lodgings in Bath. Camden Place (now Camden Crescent) was close to the northernmost and highest point of the city. From this height Sir Walter could literally look down on almost everyone else in Bath.
Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter Miss Carteret took a house in Laura Place, situated across the River Avon. Why did Jane Austen choose this specific location? The ‘other side’ of the river emphasizes the independence of the two ladies and their relative isolation from the rest of the characters. Apart from a beneﬁt concert held at her place, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter remain outside the real action of the story. They do not interact with the main characters, Anne and Captain Wentworth. Moreover, Lady Dalrymple is of Irish aristocratic descent. She does not really fit in an English sense of hierarchy that was strictly upheld in society. The urban lay-out in other words is woven into the action and emotion of the novel and integrated with each character’s rank in life. Bath is a metaphor for the society Jane Austen portrays.
Detail from a picture by Valerie Pirlot, painter in Bath. (http://valeriepirlot.com)