Whereas the first day of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath was as dreary as anyone could wish to avoid—enlivened only by the gaily dressed ladies and gentlemen who braved the rain for the Promenade—the next day broke off as sunny and pleasant as anyone in England would wish to enjoy.
The major activity for our group was a tour of the pleasure gardens, beginning at the Holburne Museum, which now as then is the entrance to Sydney Gardens. In Austen’s day the building was called the Sydney Hotel, though it was not a hotel in the traditional sense but a place of entertainment. All of the activities of the Gardens—public breakfasts, music, fireworks, and special events—began at this building. The Gardens were behind.
The public could buy subscriptions for a season of activities, though occasionally special events required additional admission. Jane Austen is known to have participated in some public breakfasts.
Our tour was led by an architectural historian by the name of Moira, a knowledgeable, energetic, theatrical, R-trilling woman of a certain age and build. She walked us through—literally—the layout of the Gardens, which as originally constructed had a variety of features including a canal, Chinese-style bridges, a waterfall, serpentine promenades, a grotto, and a labyrinth.
Progress has reduced the size of the Gardens and eliminated a few features. The Great Western Railway swallowed the labyrinth in the 1830s, for instance. Most of the Gardens remain, however, and it’s still a lovely place to promenade of a pleasant afternoon, as Jane and her sister Cassandra were fond of doing.
On our Sunday, the Gardens were full of visitors, including a few dressed in Regency wear. (Being in costume can lead to discounts at some haberdashers and eateries, we learned.) Our group featured a stunning young woman in a blue Regency walking outfit carrying complementary ivory parasol and gloves. It’s this sort of thing that gives credence to the concept of time machines.
The one thing that surprised me was the extent to which the Gardens sloped up from the entrance. Given that the canal cuts across the Gardens along the back, I had assumed that the elevation would be relatively flat or would slope downhill rather than up.
We finished at Jane Austen’s three-story house at 4 Sydney Place across the street from the Gardens. The building is rather austere, with a plain front of light-colored local Bath stone. Next to the red door is a small plaque giving the dates of Jane’s tenure there.
The family lived at Sydney Place from 1801 to 1804, after her father retired and they moved from the country in Steventon, about eighty miles east, to Bath where her parents had met and married as young people.
The location of their house, just off the Great Pulteney Bridge and across from the Gardens, was, however, too expensive for a retired clergyman and they ultimately moved to cheaper quarters. The plaque incorrectly gives the end date as 1805. Likely, the person who commissioned the sign assumed that the family moved upon the death of her father in January 1805; in fact, it was before then.
We couldn’t go into the house because it’s now part of a boutique hotel group—so any Janeite can settle in for a long weekend. The price is somewhat dear! A member of our group who recently stayed there says it is well decorated and has a number of Austen-related books but, curiously, none of Austen’s own novels.
Moira the tour guide had a book of illustrations that she used to point out details of the Gardens to the tour group. I noticed that one illustration showed a hot-air balloon, which she had not mentioned by the time the tour concluded.
I discreetly asked whether that drawing might be of the flight from the Gardens in September 1802. She laughed with surprise and excitement. The illustration was from a much later flight in Vauxhall Gardens, London—there is no artwork apparently of the 1802 flight by Monsieur André-Jacques Garnerin in Bath. The story is that the balloon was intended to remain tethered, being moved about by ropes above the heads of the admiring crowd. But the balloon got away, causing great mischief and alarm.
Moira wondered how an ordinary modern-day American might know about Bath’s aviation history. Before I could answer, my companions leapt in to explain that I had written a novel about Jane Austen, the critical scene coming when she is launched in a runaway balloon from Sydney Gardens. Furthermore, they announced, after hearing all the details about the Sydney Gardens, the Sydney Place home, and the balloon flight—I had got all the details right.
(Actually, there’s one detail I might have fudged, but I will wait for a diligent reader to point it out.)