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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an article about Jane Austen must begin with a line that rips off the opening sentence of Pride And Prejudice – but it’s also true that anyone with an interest in great literature, BBC period dramas, or the genteel, gloriously la-di-da England of the past, must be in want of a trip to Bath.

Which is why I find myself taking a weekend there from London, which is just 90 minutes by train. Austen lived here from 1801 to 1806, and so I’m here to immerse myself in her world of endless tea times, prim and proper dances, social niceties, sideburny soldiers and blushing ladies.

Bath is, understandably, crazy about this heroine of English literature. To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride And Prejudice there are numerous events being held this year, including readathons, get-togethers and festivals.

There’s also a dedicated Jane Austen Centre here (look for the life-sized waxwork of the writer outside), which has a permanent exhibition about her life. This is where I head first, getting there just in time for a talk about Jane Austen and her family.

Dress to impress: trying on costumes at the Jane Austen Centre

Rows of eager Austen fans all begin nodding happily in recognition as we hear how members of the writer’s family influenced her work: the military figures, well-meaning vicars, dependent female relatives and wealthy bachelors that gave her insights into the worlds we’re familiar with from her novels. It’s all going swimmingly until the speaker drops a bombshell.

“Of course, Jane Austen herself absolutely hated Bath – apparently when she first heard she and her family would be moving here, she fainted dead away.” An entire roomful of faces drop.

Turns out it was her father who loved Bath, where he married Austen’s mother, and had always wanted to retire here. But Bath at the time was a fashionable winter resort, and Austen found the society here shallow and boring.

I climb upstairs to the Regency Tearooms, where light strains of classical music are playing, china clinks and the hushed conversation is as prim as you could hope for – change some outfits and the scene could come straight from the pages of Sense And Sensibility. I choose a ‘Tea with the Austens’ from the menu of shamelessly novel-themed options.

As I try to nibble appropriately daintily at the scones and crusts-off sandwiches, my eyes rest on a huge oil painting on the wall, complete with a heavyweight gilded frame. It’s of a chap in full military garb, with curly dark hair, a very stiff upper lip and a strangely familiar expression of suppressed passion. Surely it can’t be…?

“Is that an oil painting of, um, Colin Firth?” I whisper to the waitress. She bursts into giggles. “Yes it’s him! We love it! It’s our pride and joy!” she says.

Downstairs, I pass crowds of tourists having a whale of a time trying on the period gear – bonnets, parasols, smocks and cropped ‘Spencer’ jackets – and buying ‘I Heart Darcy’ lip balm from the gift shop.

Definitely time to take a look at the more authentic side of Austen’s Bath, and my walking guide Tony Abbott (no relation) is the man to help. We start off strolling along the wide and leafy Gravel Walk, which leads to the Royal Crescent of magnificent, sand-coloured Georgian houses.

“We’re really walking in Jane Austen’s footsteps here, as this was very much a place for society to see and be seen in her time,” Tony tells me.

“It could get very busy with people promenading, or if they were wealthy, carried in sedan chairs (a windowed cabin). This is also the spot in the final chapter of Persuasion, where Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth confess their love for one another.”

We visit the Assembly Rooms where Austen and her sister Cassandra would have socialised, the churchyard where her father is buried and two of the four houses she lived in.

As we walk through sun-dappled cobbled streets of this small, beautiful city, I think she might have hated it 200 years ago, but if she could see it today, she might just have changed her mind.

Take a Jane Austen Walking Tour with Sulis Guides  

Getting there

Take the train from London Paddington to Bath Spa from £42 return from First Great Western when bought in advance. 


Bookish Bath: We tour the grand city that was home to England's revered author Jane Austen
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