The lovely city of Bath, England, might be the most regular character in Jane Austen’s novels. Much romantic intrigue occurs there in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. A clergyman finds a wife there in Emma. The bad boys in the other three novels head in that direction—one known to have seduced a young woman there and the others likely in town for lascivious diversions of their own.
So with all that’s going on in Bath, why doesn’t Austen tell us about the French invasion?
I’m not talking about the French attack threatened by Napoleon for much of Austen’s adult life—which included an abortive landing near Bristol, not far from Bath. I’m speaking of the invasion by the people chased from the country by La Terreur the decade before Boney took power. In doing research on Bath, I came across an article in a Somerset County historical publication that said waves of French émigrés came to Bath beginning with the Revolution in 1789.
According to one report, Bath received as many as 25,000 French in 1791 alone! The number is hard to believe, as the total population of Bath was less than 40,000 in the late 1700s. Even if the number were half what was reported, that would have been a huge influx of foreigners. Many of the exiles were royalty and their retainers and followers; some were intellectuals. Everyone who wasn’t part of the French Revolution was fleeing for his or her life.
British authorities determined that the solidly Tory town was a good place for the French and that Bath’s leadership would quickly sniff out—and snuff out—any pro-Jacobin, pro-Republican sentiment that might slip in with the tide. The idea of a representative democracy back then was frightening to the political elite. They had only two examples to date: The United States and France, neither on good terms with the British and the latter descending into chaos.
The French found places to live in the city’s many lodging houses and spreading suburbs. For a resort town, Bath was relatively inexpensive. Various princesses, French clergy, and other royal dandies were feted. They became a cause celebré. Money was raised in support, even for the French clergy, though they were Catholic. One of Bath’s other charms is that it had a registered (legal) Catholic church at a time of great discrimination against the faith.
Formal outbreak of war against the Republican government in France in 1793 caused Bath’s building boom to collapse, leading to bankruptcies and two bank failures. This, and the general hardship of war, led to a souring of attitudes toward the visitors. Paranoia spread that the emigres were awaiting signals from Paris to rise up against their friendly hosts. With the passage of several Alien Acts in the 1790s, French exiles were examined by magistrates for seditious attitudes and had to register any weapons they had.
The French also created economic problems—welfare first (even the wealthy French began to run short of cash after a while)—then work, as they began to seek jobs. Painting, drawing, and music lessons were common pursuits, and fashion was a big thing. Every exile seemed to be teaching French. When a local committee sought to stimulate the sale of craft goods, businessmen rose up, afraid the project would favor the work of the Alien over the Native.
On the opposite side, the availability of French silver coins aided the economy at a time when British silver was in short supply. The government was using paper money to pay for the war, but everyone preferred what Jane Austen called a bit of pewter.
The gouty Louis XVIII even came to Bath in 1813 for the waters with his French court in exile. He stayed until Napoleon was overthrown the next year. With the restoration of the monarchy, many French returned home. But the émigré demographics skewed to the older, and many had died in the twenty-plus years. Several elderly French priests lived on in Bath until the 1830s; the rest of the exiles were absorbed into the population or moved elsewhere, most likely London.
Somehow, though, Bath seems to have resisted any permanent French influence. Not only is this influx of foreigners not mentioned in any other books and articles I’ve read about Bath, but this is also a topic not mentioned by Austen. Perhaps it’s because she’s quintessentially English, but you think she might have made passing references to at least a few French sights and sounds—French advertisements, French dress, or French accents. At a ball in 1789, Bath resident Elizabeth Sheridan reported that “the sound of French prevail’d [even] over the Irish accent which reigns pretty generally at Bath.”
The only reference to anything French in Austen’s Bath novels comes in Northanger Abbey, but it’s not related to French emigres overflowing the streets. Catherine makes three references to the south of France as being “fruitful in horrors”—a connection to her Gothic novels, particularly Mysteries of Udolpho. She also relates Beechen Cliff near Bath with the vistas of the same part of France.
Finally, when Catherine joins the Tilney family to travel the thirty miles from Bath to their abbey home, the group must wait two hours at Petty France, about halfway there, for a change of horses. This must be a coach inn where one can “eat without being hungry, and loiter about without anything to
see.” Perhaps it was named for an enclave of local French. Or did some enterprising French royalty establish the coach stop? (Though one expects they would have spelled it Petit France rather than Petty.)
What say ye? Are there French subtexts in the Bath novels—or anywhere in Austen’s mature works—that I’ve missed? Yes, there’s the vague connection of Frank Churchill to an undefined French lack of reliability in Emma, but is there anything more substantive? Does Austen plant subtle French flags for sharp elves to see?