Bath is, I think, one of the few places left in England – and perhaps the best of them all – where you can catch a real glimpse of Georgian Britain. Somehow, it had escaped the ravages of time and the 1970s ‘improvements’ and had remained a timeless capsule of yesteryear beauty. To me, Bath is a perfect indication of what Mr. Darcy’s London might have looked like.
The beautiful illusion was encouraged by the fact that, thanks to Sophie Andrews’ friends and family, we were privileged to stay in an exquisite apartment on Great Pulteney Street of all places, and by simply looking out of the large sash windows we were transported back in time.
And then, as soon as we walked out, we encountered people dressed in Regency apparel wandering hither and thither down the old paved streets.
The first time I went to the Bath festival and I dressed up in costume I felt very self-conscious about it. I had come for the day, just for the Promenade, dressed in ‘civilian clothes’, with my Regency finery in a very large bag. A kindly lady in a very posh boutique allowed me to use the changing cubicle, and I went inside in jeans and came out in a Regency frock and a hat fit for Mrs Bennet, with the clear feeling that I was slightly off my rocker.
Not so this year. If anything, after a while, as I was rushing to some event or another with several giggly ladies dressed for the part, it felt like we were the ones wearing the right apparel, and it was the people in modern-day clothes who were out of place. And the loveliest experience was to walk past people we’ve never met before, but with whom we instantly felt a sense of kinship, because they were dressed up too and they would smile and nod or greet us with a very proper curtsy.
I think it’s the sense of kinship that I value most of all. The real world is what it is, with its clear benefits in terms of sanitation and healthcare, but also lots of other aspects we could well do without. The people in the real world might look upon us with amusement or mild exasperation (and by that I mean not only strangers, but also family and friends). But us Janeites understand each other. We know why we spend ages making a bonnet or sewing a Regency dress. Of course we do, it makes perfect sense! And, despite the odd disappointment, I’m still looking for that sense of kinship, and I’m grateful and ever so happy when I find it.
I certainly found it this year. The company was delightful. Not only the wonderful friends I came with or already knew, but also people I knew by sight but not by name from previous years, or completely new ‘additions to the party’.
We gathered at the Assembly Rooms:
We walked together in the Promenade.
We danced together at the Assembly Rooms, just as they did in Jane Austen’s time (oh, the dances!! I never knew I had so much of Lydia in me!), while in another room others were busily engaged in games of cards, and then we ‘sat down for supper’ in true Regency splendour.
The next day there was a picnic and a game of rounders on the lawn before the Royal Crescent:
This was followed by an exquisite concert at the Holburne Museum , and we were treated to a great selection that included ‘Voi che sapete’, the ‘Rondo alla Turca’, which Mrs Hurst had played so skilfully in the 1995 adaptation, as well as Mary’s aria that had begun with ‘My mother bids me bind my hair with bands of rosy hue…’ but was never finished because Mr Bennet timely although rather insensitively interrupted her.
Then we went home to play the funniest board game I’ve ever played. ‘Marrying Mr. Darcy’ is a must-have for every Janeite, even though our friends and family won’t be easily persuaded to play, and we might have to resort to Skype for a long-distance get together. What can be more entertaining than a game where nothing is set in stone, and you can end up with an outcome as outrageous as Miss Bingley eloping with Wickham, Mr. Darcy marrying Lydia (shock-horror!) or Charlotte Lucas landing the dashing Captain Denny (hence the smug look on my face).
The week continued with a series of unmissable events such as ‘Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain’ and ‘Know your phaeton from your curricle’, an extremely informative talk by Hazel Mills on Regency travel, where Hazel told us everything we needed to know about roads, turnpikes, coaching inns as well as the vehicles owned by some Jane Austen characters, and what their conveyances said about them. Then there was a rather scary incursion into Regency medicine, courtesy of ‘Mr. James Buchan, the apothecary’. This is one of the characters played with such gusto by Mr. John S. White, Performance Historian and I can’t recommend his performances enough! You might be so fortunate as to see them, he has appearances all over the UK and US, and they really are unmissable treats. Check out www.selectsociety.co.uk to find out more.
On the following day I had the great pleasure to help with the set up for the ‘Laughing with Lizzie’ event at number 4 Sydney Place, where the lovely Sophie Andrews was announced as an ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.
For the rest of the week there were Regency dress workshops, a taster session of Georgian puddings that included a surprisingly delicious one involving eggs, oranges and spinach, an extremely entertaining talk by John Mullan (don’t miss the chance to hear him too, if you can!), a very moving demonstration on the harp and an excellent performance of ‘Emma’, by Hotbuckle Productions.
I wish my time in Regency England would never end. But I missed my family – and there would be other years. I hope you’ll give it a go sometime and we can get together for the Jane Austen Bath Festival, to laugh and talk and party like it’s 1799!