Jane Austen and the Georgian Social Whirl of Bath
Running now for its second year, the British Library and National Trust have collaboratively designed a doctoral fellowship programme which aims to examine the connections between each organisation’s collections. Starting in January 2023, I have had the pleasure of taking the role of Doctoral Fellow on a project which examines the importance of public entertainment spaces, such as Bath’s Assembly Rooms, within Georgian society. The project’s primary aim has been to analyse literature and other paper-based ephemera, found in the British Library and National Trust’s extensive catalogues, in order to gain insight into Austen’s society and, more widely, social life in Bath.
During the eighteenth century, Bath was a place for both the fashionable and the infirm, a city which enticed people for both their healing waters and lavish entertainments. Bath became synonymous with entertainment. Whilst there was an abundance of scheduled entertainments such as plays, balls and musical concerts, the biggest entertainment of all was that of the spa town’s social theatre.
Whether you believe that Austen liked or loathed Bath, the city most certainly had an impact on her life and writings. In fact, there isn’t a single one of Austen’s six major novels which does not mention Bath in some capacity, whether by using the city as the main theatrical stage for Northanger Abbey (1817), or a brief mention of Mr Wickham ‘enjoy[ing] himself in London or Bath’ in Pride and Prejudice (1813). The city features most prominently in Austen’s posthumously published novels, Persuasion (1817) and Northanger Abbey. The treatment of Bath within these texts receives two opposing perspectives: one of wonder and excitement of a small-town girl going to the “Big City” in Northanger Abbey, contrasted with the view of Bath as a faded metropolis, a place in which Anne Elliot rather reluctantly goes to join her family in Persuasion.
Whilst the city attracted fashionable society, this very social class became a prime target for criticism and ridicule, as seen in satirical prints of the period. Found within the British Library collection is an 1858 bound book which includes a series of satirical prints by Thomas Rowlandson titled, The Comforts of Bath, first published in 1798. The twelve-plate series depicts different entertainments within the city, including both a concert and dancing, waters being drunk at the Pump Room, and public gaming.
Accompanying each print is an extract from Christopher Anstey’s New Bath Guide, first published in 1766. The title of Anstey’s work is fairly misleading. Instead of an instructional piece recommending the latest and most fashionable of Bath’s hotspots, the publication is written in a series of satirical, anapaestic poems, following the lives of the fictional Blunderhead family. In fact, it’s not really a guidebook at all. Here, the combining of both text and print merges the visual and textual, presenting two very similar satiric critiques of Georgian Bath society.
Looking closely at plate ten of Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath, we can see a multitude of activity happening in this concert setting. Whilst there are audience members intently watching the performance, many can be seen having conversations between themselves, staring off into the distance, fidgeting, and even having a light snooze. The role of the audience in Georgian entertainment spaces was vastly different to what we experience today. Whilst we are instructed to turn off the distractions that are mobile phones, and talking through movies is often met with a passive aggressive “shush”, eighteenth-century entertainment etiquette was a little different. Speaking of the experience of the theatregoer, Jim Davis states, ‘[r]efreshments, discussion of the performance in progress, casual conversation, a little ogling and flirting, were all part of the experience’ (Davis, p.520).
The role of the audience member, or spectator, was a topic which many artists like Rowlandson adopted in their work. Found within the British Library collection, George Cruikshank’s Pit, Boxes & Gallery, published in 1834, illustrates a lively theatre audience split across three levels. Like Rowlandson’s The Concert, the print shows a variety of comic characters, all engaged in an array of activities, from conversing and drinking to fighting for space in the upper gallery.
This visualisation of spectatorship, created by artists such as Cruikshank and Rowlandson, often portrays an audience whose full attention is rarely directed at the entertainment in question (Davis, p.520). Consequently, the audience are presented as active spectators as opposed to passive ones, playing a vital role within the experience of Georgian entertainments. This active participation of the audience is therefore instrumental to what we consider Georgian entertainment. It is not just the physical activity of dancing, acting or singing which creates entertainment, but the individuals who both watch and participate in not just the concert halls but also the social theatre of Bath. For is the spa town itself not simply a dramatic stage for the wealthy and fashionable to “perform” their celebrity? Bath therefore acted as a stage which facilitated the gossipy tête-à-têtes of the fashionable elite.
The theatre and concert halls were not the only spaces which society performed spectatorship; the Pump Rooms were a place which people frequented in order to see and be seen. In chapter three of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator describes the daily rituals of Bath life:
"Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one." (Northanger Abbey, p.25).
Austen paints a picture of a society which, as Kathryn Sutherland states, is ‘continually watching’. The Pump Room was not only a place for healing, where curative waters would be taken for those in ill-health, but also a space to be seen performing your correct, societal role. The presentation of oneself within society was also visible through newspaper announcements, evident in Austen’s Persuasion where the arrival of the Elliot’s wealthy cousins, the Dalrymples, are announced in the paper:
"The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, […] for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly." (Persuasion, p.139).
Seen in both extracts, Austen not only exposes this societal “peacocking”, but also subtly hints at the absurdity of social formalities, for if agony is caused in trying to talk to one’s own relations, it must be near impossible to socialise with anyone else.
Taking part in the social display of oneself within these public environments, both created and fed into a culture of gossip. To be spoken about, to be known, to have a respected reputation, were all a means to tap into the benefits of the celebrity culture of the time. For in Georgian Bath, gossip was the ultimate form of entertainment. Similar to the role of audiences, gossip was about active and passive spectatorship. Whilst the trading of gossip provided plenty of entertainment for consumption, members of these social classes also stared as the entertainers themselves, both being the subjects of such gossip and through their social appearance on this “stage”. This gossip culture is also an intrinsic feature of Austen’s writings. Catherine Morland’s naivety in Northanger Abbey is apparent when she struggles to know whose gossip to listen to, or in the case of John Thorpe, his lies and trickery. In a bid to thwart Catherine’s plans with the well-mannered Henry and Eleanor Tilney, John spreads misinformation of the Tilney’s whereabouts in order to secure Catherine’s time for himself.
Thus, Bath was a town of both active and passive entertainment. Bath’s amusements existed on the stage and in the audiences of plays and concerts, but also in equal measure in social spaces such as the Pump Room and tea rooms. People delighted in the scripted entertainments of the stage and ballroom, as well as taking part in the unscripted social theatre. Thus, public entertainment spaces in Bath were vital for the facilitation of not only scheduled entertainment but also the social displays of wealth and importance. It would therefore be remiss to define Bath’s public entertainment spaces as simply the sites of formal activities. The popular resort town functioned as a theatrical backdrop for the social circus that was the Georgian elite, ultimately providing a fashionable space to see and be seen.
By Joanne Edwards, Doctoral Fellow with the British Library and National Trust.
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)
Austen, Jane, Persuasion, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)
Austen, Jane, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Davis, Jim, ‘Looking and Being Looked At’, Theatre Journal, 2017, 69. 4, pp. 515-53
Sutherland, Kathryn, ‘Jane Austen and social judgement’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, <www.bl.uk>