Blog post by Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade). Photo credits to Caitlin Coxon (@CoxonCaitlin), Jo Daniel (@JFDMID), Anthony Mandal (@CardiffBookHistory) and Sophie Coulombeau (@SMCoulombeau). We are very grateful to the School of English, Communication and Philosophy’s Teaching Enhancement Fund for meeting the costs of this trip and ensuring an accessible learning experience for all students on the module.
This year, the MA Narrative and Nation cohort, led by Dr Sophie Coulombeau and Professor Anthony Mandal, had the wonderful opportunity and pleasure to go on a field trip to Bath. Our psychogeographic exploration of the town sought to consolidate the project of the module: to understand the relationship between narrative and nationhood. But, as it happens, we managed to achieve much more!
After passing multiple heritage plaques within minutes of arriving, our exploration proper began at South Parade, on the River Avon, where we were treated to a reading by Sophie of Frances Burney’s letter describing the very house we were stood beside.
The house, occupied by the Thrales, was home to Burney for her time there. We learnt that Burney occupied one of the rooms overlooking the river and, in the surreal manner that psychogeography anticipates, we could see her very view across the water. Of the writers we considered, she was one of the most sympathetic towards and most enchanted by Bath, especially in contrast to Horace Walpole. However, we also learnt her trip was cut short due to the Gordon riots, which was intriguing because it gives a lively, political history to a now more statically preserved town.
Next, we were guided to the resting place of Frances Burney. Her grave, and a memorial commemorating Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, share a graveyard at Walcot Church. Situated in the middle of a busy intersection, the sobering knowledge that Burney’s memorial had been moved so that her body was lost under our feet led to a fruitful conversation about the bodies and resting places of other long eighteenth-century writers, namely Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
We then soldiered on to the Museum of Bath Architecture whose administrator extraordinaire had kindly opened the museum for us. The museum was also the Countess of Huntington’s chapel. This chapel, we learnt, was a site where abolitionists and freed slaves spoke to congregations. Unsurprisingly, in terms of architecture, the museum itself was abundantly useful! To see the amount of skill and craft that went into the construction of a typical Bath house, its exteriors and its interiors, was invaluable. The choices of finish and style, the wallpaper, the plasterwork, and even the doors, were ample. Learning of the stress put on the nature of furnishings and function in the long eighteenth century helped make Elizabeth Elliot’s anxiety about refraining ‘from new-furnishing the drawing-room’ in Austen’s Persuasion more understandable, if not any less amusing.
Following this, we made our way to a coffee shop where, pertinently for Cardiff University’s eighteenth-century enthusiasts, we talked politics and power and learnt that we would briefly be meeting Dr Stephen Gregg from Bath Spa University. This meeting was my personal highlight of the trip because, in true literature-student fashion, we had an impromptu reading of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Stephen outside the Assembly Rooms. He later pointed out the location of the easily-missed circulating library on Milsom Street, which is also the street where Anne encounters Admiral Croft.
After a quick view of the situation of Westgate Buildings, the home of Anne Elliot’s friend, Mrs Smith, and an education on the lay of the land suggesting rank, (because the higher parts of Bath were furthest away from the river where there really was ‘foul air’ as Sir Walter Elliot puts it) we made our way to Bath Street and the site of what was once White Hart Inn. Bath Street, the place where William Elliot is seen with Mrs Clay, was notorious for unseemly liaisons and would have been recognised by Austen’s readership as such. We then paused at Hall & Woodhouse for lunch.
After lunch, we spent an hour or so seeing Bath on our own. In this time, Caitlin and I visited Bath Abbey, Sally Lunn’s, the Christmas Markets (unavoidable, of course, as they were right beside the Abbey), and bookshops. We then all made our way to The Crescent to see a candlelit and festive No. 1 Royal Crescent which was absolutely fascinating. In fact, we might have stayed longer there if we could. Our interest was focused on the day-to-day lives of a Georgian household, and it was rather eye-opening. We learnt about Georgian custom and convention in the dining room: the Georgians used nutmeg graters at the table; while in the parlour, we learnt about the luxury of carpets; and in the bedrooms, the changing fashion of its inhabitants due to the hair powder tax. Our final stop No. 1 Royal Crescent’s kitchen which was perhaps the most delightful, refreshing part of the trip because we learnt that maggot-ridden, stale and otherwise decaying food was the norm, hence the need for nutmeg graters to disguise the taste. Our trip ended here with a group photo.
Our walking tour through the town of Bath exemplified the rich materiality, the politics and the broad nature of eighteenth-century notions of nation. In all the bustle of Bath, the field trip asserted the importance and uniqueness of place in constructions of nation in narrative and above all, its physical reality. Bath’s preservation is best experienced in person, because as Burney says, Bath holds ‘more luxury for the Eye’ than I could hope to illustrate.