The best-known novel by Jane Austen, who for many stands second only to the Bard himself as England’s greatest writer, is about to celebrate its 200th anniversary. Earning the author just £110, Pride and Prejudice was published on January 28th, 1813, and read for the first time by a modest circle of men and women.
It has since become one of literature’s most revered works, and today enjoys unprecedented popularity and interest. From the BBC’s 1995 adaptation starring Colin Firth to 2005’s Keira Knightley-led film – not to mention zombie and Bollywood retellings, Bridget Jones associations, and a murder mystery sequel – the book’s fame is a truth universally acknowledged.
Ardent Austen fans such as myself will require little inducement to take a tour themed around the writer and her works, yet there could scarcely be a better time to do so.
Bath is a natural starting point: a city where Austen lived for five years, it is marking Pride and Prejudice’s bicentennial with a number of events, including a 24-hour readathon at the Jane Austen Centre, discussions of the book taking pride of place at the Bath Literature Festival, and the 10-day Jane Austen Festival in September.
Bath, which last year marked its 25th year as a Unesco World Heritage Site, has an abundance of handsome Georgian buildings, and sauntering around it conjures something of the atmosphere of two Austen novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were both set here.
To really get myself in the mood, though, I make my way post-haste to the Jane Austen Centre. Austen lived on Gay Street, a few doors down from the centre, between 1801 and 1806. The quaint museum tells the story of her life in the city – not all of it happy – and displays correspondence she kept at the time. The period dress and furniture on show give a real feeling of stepping back two centuries, though the highlight is the Regency tea room, where the white-aproned waitresses, Bath buns and “Tea with Mr Darcy” are an excellent start to the day.
North of here is one of the most impressive examples of Georgian architecture in the city: the Circus, a stunning ring of houses blushing ochre in the morning sun, and hardly changed since Austen’s time.
Leading out of the ring to the east is Bennett Street, on which can be found the Assembly Rooms. Here Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland and Mrs Allen “squeezed in as well as they could” after arriving late to a ball. It has been faithfully restored to the splendour of Austen’s time; she would have spent many an evening here. Having sought out the octagon room, I try to picture Anne Elliot’s awkward conversation with Capt Wentworth in Persuasion, their first meeting after an ill-fated day in Lyme.
Another, more remarkable venue for social gatherings in Bath was the Pump Room, which appears in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and was the heart of that era’s high society. I reach it by passing through Union Street, where after “so many, many years of division and estrangement” Anne and Wentworth are finally bound together at Persuasion’s climax.
Entering the grand, honey-coloured building, the pump attendant, dressed in frilly Regency attire, recommends the hot, bubbly water; Bath’s thermal springs were valued for their healing properties in Austen’s time, but I can’t help thinking something tasting so much like rotten eggs mustn’t be all that good for me.