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Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“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.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.

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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations.”

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

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Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

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.

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Jane Austen's Aunt - Jane Perrot

Jane Austen’s Aunt – Jane Perrot

On the 8th August 1799, Jane Leigh-Perrot was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a millinery shop in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots, a wealthy couple, were Jane Austen’s mother’s brother and sister-in-law (Jane’s Uncle and Aunt). The white lace valued at £1 was found in Mrs Leigh-Perrot’s possession together with a card of black lace that she had bought and paid for from the same shop. Mrs Leigh-Perrot denied stealing the lace, saying that the sales clerk must have given it her by mistake when he handed over her purchase.

There was no organised police force in 18th Century England, apart from the Bow Street Runners in London . The capture and prosecution of criminals was largely left to their victims to deal with. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, but they were unpaid volunteers working only in their spare time. And a victim of crime who wanted a constable to track down and arrest the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of their doing so.

Sometimes victims of crime hired a thief-taker to pursue the wrong-doer. Again, they were private individuals working much like latter day bounty hunters. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. Many though were corrupt, actually initiating and organising the original theft in order to claim the reward for the return of goods, or extorting protection money from the criminals they were supposed to catch.

For the most part, unless a criminal was “caught in the act” (usually by their intended victim) it was unlikely they would be brought to justice. In the absence of a police force, the maintenance of “Law and Order” therefore came to depend more on deterrence rather than apprehension. The harshest penalty of all was brought in to cover more and more crimes in what came to be known as the “Bloody Code.”  In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book that carried the death sentence. By 1776 the number had quadrupled, and reached 220 by the end of the century, including the crime of “Grand Larceny,” or the theft of items with a monetary value that exceeded one shilling (later increased to five shillings).

In practice, some judges, advocates and juries often recognised the barbarity of the punishment in relation to the crime. Advocates would sometimes plead for mercy. Juries might determine that goods were over-priced and bring their value down below the five shilling threshold. Defendants might claim “benefit of clergy” which by virtue of stating religious belief and reading out an oath allowed the judge to exercise leniency. In other cases the Government could review the sentence by appeal, and often did.

Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were actually carried out. The alternatives, however, included branding or transportation to the Australian Colonies with the prospect of forced labour for 14 years. One-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867, it is estimated, were transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Others were “allowed” to join the army as an alternative to transportation, many fighting in the Napoleonic wars.

Although Mrs Leigh-Perrot (Jane Austen’s aunt) denied stealing the lace in August 1799 she was nevertheless arrested on a charge of “grand theft.” The lace, to the value of £1, she was said to have stolen was worth four times the five shillings that carried the death sentence.

In practice it was unlikely (given her standing) that if she had been found guilty she would have been sentenced to death. Jane Leigh-Perrot was though refused bail and committed to prison on the sworn depositions of the shopkeeper. Due to her wealth, social standing and age she was allowed to stay in the house of the prison keeper, Mr Scadding, at the Somerset County Gaol in Ilchester, rather than being kept in a cell. Mrs Leigh-Perrot still wrote though that she suffered ‘Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from morning till night’. James Leigh-Perrot insisted on remaining with her in prison.

During her trial Jane Leigh-Perrot spoke eloquently for herself.  Several testimonials as to her character were also read out to the court. At the conclusion of the trial the jury took only 10 minutes to find her “Not Guilty.” It does, however, make you wonder how someone less well refined, less well-connected,  less eloquent, less educated, less wealthy might have fared. The evidence of her guilt, might have been quite sufficient to send someone else to the gallows, or transported, or branded with a hot iron. She was after all caught in possession of the item and identified by the shop-keeper. In “Persuasion” Captain Harville asks Anne Elliot, ‘But how shall we prove anything?’ Anne replies, ‘We never shall.

As the system of justice developed, the “Bloody Code” came under increasing challenge from advocates like William Garrow (as dramatised in the BBC series “Garrow’s Law“). In 1823 the “Judgement of Death Act” made the mandatory death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually the emphasis changed from deterrence by penalty, to deterrence by likelihood of capture. The first organised police forces were gradually established in major cities with the dual objectives of preventing crime and apprehending criminals.

This is an update of a post hosted on the Jane Austen’s World website on 24th July 2012. An extract of it (“Law and Order in the Georgian Era”)  was included on The Jane Austen Forum on 9th August 2012. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and similarities to modern life, and to take the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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The Avon Street area of Bath was a bad place to live in the 19th Century and not a safe place to visit. There are few surviving pictures of the area. The one above is of one of the more salubrious parts  which survived into the 20th Century. It’s hard to imagine that Avon Street appealed to many artists of the time with so much georgian grandeur on offer in other parts of the city.

My book, “Avon Street” started as a short story.  Its setting was almost incidental. Bath was simply the right sort of back-drop for an historical story which I had initially intended would be set in the Georgian era. Yet the more research I did, the stronger the role of the city became and the greater grew my interest in the Avon Street area.  Bath became a character in its own right, but it was a character with a split personality. Gradually fact began to merge with fiction and the story took on new meaning as the time-frame moved from Georgian, to Victorian Bath.

Bath has always been a city of illusion, as I have tried to demonstrate in previous posts. The magnificent, honey-coloured, bath-stone facades hid poorly finished buildings. The ostentatious trappings of wealth were all available for hire.  The right address, furniture, crockery, silverware and servants could all be hired by the month provided a person had the right accent, manners, clothes, and money. Bath was a city where you could be whoever you wanted to be, provided you had the money or the appearance of of money . The conventions, manners and rules of polite society masked motives and emotions that were sometimes far from genteel.

Jane Austen a writer uniquely associated with the City, only ever hinted at the more unpleasant aspects of Bath. It is apparent from her letters that her personal feelings regarding  the city were at odds with the way she depicted it in her books. In writing “Avon Street” I wanted to take the reader beyond the Georgian facades and polite society of the city and reveal some of its darker secrets – and the Avon Street area of the city was the darkest secret of all.

By 1850, industry was thriving in the city whilst its traditional role as a spa and watering-hole for polite society was declining. The Avon Street area of the city had grown into a sprawling, disease-ridden slum and was subject to frequent flooding. Though it occupied a relatively small part of the city geographically, it was home to twenty per cent of Bath’s population. It was abhorred and for the most part ignored by the city and its visitors, yet the two sides of the city co-existed uneasily, one dependent on the other. Avon Street provided the servants, the labourers, the factory workers and sweat-shop employees. High society employed the servants and bought the goods they made.

Bath as a city did its best to keep Avon Street, the factories and sweat-shops largely out of sight and as far away as possible from the minds of visitors and wealthy residents. The cholera outbreak in 1849 (largely confined to Avon Street) had been the second largest in the country, yet it too was kept out of the public eye. When disreputable behaviour spilled out into the city, it was usually put down to the ethnic origin of the ‘sinner’ or the influence of alcohol and was punished as harshly as the law would permit, and the law permitted a great deal of harshness.

Most of the Avon Street Area is now occupied by Bath Spa University, various commercial properties, bus depots and sundry car parks. The houses are gone: the past, its people and their stories lie buried. Yet their struggles deserve to be remembered. In my book I have tried to explore the tensions that existed between the two aspects of the city, to separate the city from the illusion. I have also tried to give a voice to the forgotten people of Avon Street.

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Ball at the Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath – Painting by R.Cruikshank from the Victoria Art Gallery Collection.

“It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament – he might there be important at comparatively little cost.” – “Persuasion”

Beau Nash turned Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England and established the framework and beliefs on which the city was developed. He had been somewhat of a failure in his former careers in the army and in the law, but that did not hold him back when he took up his role as Master of Ceremonies for the City of Bath in 1704, a position he retained until his death.

Though the title of Master of Ceremonies was unofficial it gave Nash substantial power in the city. He established a select list of people (some 500 to 600) that he judged to be the cream of Society. There was competition amongst visitors (whatever their standing) to earn his favour and to be included in the list. Nash would meet new arrivals to the city and assess whether they were worthy of inclusion in his “select company.” He organised the premier social events in Bath and chose who should be invited, and largely dictated who should socialise with whom. He also controlled the gambling in the city, from which he earned his living.

More importantly Nash is also remembered for creating a new informality in manners in the city, breaking down the old social order which had preserved the dominance of the nobility and the gentry. At this time there was a growing middle class of successful businessmen, industrialists and trades-people who might be from humble origins but who  had plenty of money; and Nash and the city of Bath were dependent on money, wherever it came from. Nash’s new social hierarchy was very much based on the abilities to exhibit all the trappings of wealth, to be entertaining and to spend lavishly.

This new social order was revolutionary in its time. It meant that people of wealth would be welcomed in Bath as members of high society, whereas in other towns and cities they might still be judged by their birth and background. A whole industry and way of life grew up around this convention. The city thrived on attracting temporary visitors who stayed for the season or who visited in parties.

Few of these people lived in the city. They visited for a few months, renting houses or apartments – and they could rent everything in Bath – from the best addresses, to crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. In short, providing you had the money (or the credit) you could be whoever you wanted to be in Bath; or as Jane Austen observed in “Persuasion” it was a city where someone could “be important at comparatively little cost.”

It was the ease with which characters could deceive in Bath that created so much potential in setting an historical crime novel in the city. “Avon Street” is set much later (in the mid-19th century) and though Bath had changed by then, Nash’s rules still applied – you could still be who you wanted to be in Bath, irrespective of your roots. It was still a city where appearance was everything.

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