Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.
Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.
The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.
By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,
“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”
Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,
“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”
By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.
The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.
In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –
“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”
In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.
Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.