BATH, England — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
So begins Pride and Prejudice — one of Jane Austen’s best-known works — which tells the story of a rich bachelor, Mr. Darcy, who falls in love with a woman below his social class, the young witty Elizabeth Bennet. The regularly tops polls as Britain’s favourite novel and has been adapted for TV and film at least five times.
This year Pride and Prejudice takes the spotlight in Bath, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its publication. Austen is perhaps the best loved of Bath’s many famous residents. A resident from 1801-06, she mentioned Bath in all of her books, including Northanger Abbey and Persuasion which are largely set in Bath.
Even if you’re not an Austen fan, Bath is worth a visit. Once an important Roman spa town (the Roman Baths & Pump Room remain a top attraction), the UNESCO World Heritage city has a rich architectural heritage and its Pulteney Bridge is one of the few bridges in the world with shops built into it on both sides.
Much of the city would be familiar to Austen if she were alive today. The tradition of afternoon tea continues at the impressive Assembly Rooms (mentioned in two of her novels). The Georgian Garden, near the Gravel Walk, once again looks as it would have Austen’s time. Even the author’s home — No. 4 Sydney Place — is still here, though now it’s open to tourists who can spend the night in the refurbished apartment.
Visitors can join a guided walking tour to some of Austen’s daily haunts. Or enjoy “Tea with Mr. Darcy,” part of a Jane Austen Spa Experience package, which also includes entry to the Thermae Bath Spa, a two-hour spa session and admission to the Jane Austen Centre, all for £58 (about $92) per person.
Next month, the lawns of the Manor House Hotel in nearby Castle Combe will be the setting for an Aug. 26 performance of Pride and Prejudice by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company (about $24). Bring a blanket and have a picnic while being entertained on the grounds of this 14th-century manor in the Wiltshire countryside. If you want to stay the night, the manor has 48 rooms and the Michelin-star Bybrook restaurant.
Celebrations continue in the fall with the annual Jane Austen Festival (Sept. 13-21), which will mark the anniversary with concerts, etiquette lessons, dancing, workshops and more.
The Jane Austen Centre houses a permanent exhibition on Austen’s experience in the city and the influence it had on her writing. Visitors can see a replica of the only known portrait of the author (the original is in the National Portrait Gallery in London), and read letters to her sister Cassandra, which paint a vivid picture of daily life. There are reproductions of period clothing to try on and exhibits that explain how people spent their leisure hours dancing, playing cards, etc.
Before exploring on your own, a guide provides a brief introduction to Austen and her family. We learn she was the seventh of eight children and developed a love of reading and writing from her clergyman father and her mother who was known for writing funny limericks and poems, and encouraged her young daughter to do the same. Austen’s only sister Cassandra was also her best friend and critiqued her work before publication.
There’s no doubt people relate to the novels.
“I think it’s due to the fantastic writing and her wonderful social commentary,” said the guide, “but also the fact that on purpose she hardly mentions the Napoleonic war, religious or political views. That is because she wanted her books to be timeless. She wanted people, no matter what time period they’re in, to be able to pick up one of her books, read them and enjoy them.”
Seems Austen will be remembered for a long time to come. Recently, there was talk in Britain of her image appearing on the 10 pound note — in time for the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017.
Here are three ways to get in touch with your inner Austen:
1 STEP BY STEP
Follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen with a guided walking tour organized through the Jane Austen Centre, or download a free Jane Austen audio walking
tour to your smart phone or MP3 player and discover Bath as Austen would have seen it. It covers the highlights of the city and extracts from her novels and letters which describe Bath in its Georgian heyday.
Visitors can take part in the Jane Austen Festival Grand Regency Costumed Promenade Saturday, Sept. 14. Hundreds of people will dress in Regency costume for what promises to be a spectacular official opening to the festival accompanied by red coats and navy officers, and led by the town crier. The 90-minute Promenade departs from Royal Crescent lawn and ends in Parade Gardens near Bath Abbey. Tickets are £10 for adults (about $16), free for under 16 years.
3 TEA TIME
In scenes from Pride and Prejudice, it was customory for marriageable young women of the house to pour the tea for visitors to show off their elegant manners. Tea drinking is still popular in Bath. Enjoy a cuppa at the Assembly Rooms, once a hub for fashionable Georgian society, or the Jane Austen Centre’s Regency Tea Rooms. Nibble on finger sandwiches, warm scones and a selection of cakes, in the company of Mr. Darcy, one of Jane’s most famous fictional characters.