Being in Bath for the annual Jane Austen Festival was a special treat, and things were so busy that the first time I’ve had to write is two days later, in another Austen haunt about 90 miles east of Bath–Hampshire.
Even these thoughts are quickly put together. No coherent theme has emerged!
The Jane Austen Festival runs for ten days in Bath every September, two weekends sandwiching a week in which something interesting happens each day: lectures, balls, tours, theatrical performances.
My wife, Wendy, and I attended the Friday night pre-festival soiree, which was a relatively small affair in which we got to mingle with the many volunteers who help put on the event. Things are informal enough, and hands’ on enough, that Jackie Herring, the festival director, was the one taking tickets.
Jackie has been with the festival almost since its start and director for nine years. She says it’s a good thing it’s an annual event, because it takes about a year to put together.
It was interesting to see the number of young women involved as stewards, who have various assignments all during the festival, including shepherding participants to the right places for the Promenade and different events. One such young lady was a microbiologist in Bristol, and another held multiple teaching jobs. Both were eager to help all week at the Festival. It’s good to think that another generation has fallen in love with Austen.
Saturday’s big event was the Promenade, at which a few years ago Bath set a world record in the number of people wearing Regency dress. This is the modern record, of course. One supposes Bath had a few more Regency-clad denizens in 1802. Bath reclaimed the modern record from upstart Americans who had previously gathered the largest modern Regency crowd, thinking it would be fun to beat the Brits at their own game.
We were a group of six: Wendy and I, the two winners of the sweepstakes tied to the launch of the second volume of my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” and their guests. As we stood for a few photos in and around the Abbey, we were swarmed by a host of the other tourists, who could not get enough photos of relatively attractive people dressed so smartly. We had to explain to most of them that there was this festival going on, and that hundreds of people would soon be walking all over the city in Regency costumes.
The weather was gloomy all morning, with a light shower here and there. The forecast was for the rain to clear at 11:00 with the start of the Promenade, which began at the Assembly Rooms (the Upper Rooms in Jane’s day) and meandered by or through all of the big sights (and sites) in Bath.
Naturally, a forecast of clearing skies at 11:00 meant that this was when the rain began in earnest, and it came down in buckets for part of the two-hour walk. By the end, we were all as bedraggled—but in equally determined spirits—as Liz Bennet when she traipsed through the mud to see her ill sister.
Beyond my finely accoutered companions, the highlights of the Promenade for me were a delightful girl out with her grandparents, a set of half a dozen middle-aged Janeites from a Germanic country (whose language I could not understand), and a group of young people and children performing dances in the rain for those of us now able to finish inside the building where we started.
Inside the Rooms were hot drinks and pastries, which the crowd quickly set upon before turning to see all the wares at the Festival Fayre. This emporium features all manner of items related to the Regency era, from subscriptions to the magazine “Jane Austen’s Regency World” to Austen books and memorabilia to every variety of period clothing and accessories. If you’ve been to the shops at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, the fayre is similar—but the clothing for sale comes in a greater variety of quality and expense.
The day formally concluded for me with a lecture on the bigger history of the Regency period that framed Jane Austen’s novels. A small but attentive audience listened as I spoke about science, business, social and labor issues, politics, and war.
After answering several interesting questions, I was pleased when a man in the audience thanked me for the talk and said—apparently quite surprised—“You made an hour go by fast!”