• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1801. . .

Seventy-first in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Moving out of one house and into another is a stressful, time-consuming business these days. Apparently, it was ever thus – or so we might conclude from the letter that Jane Austen began writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 221 years ago today (#29 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


A few weeks earlier, the Austen parents had announced the family’s impending move from rural Steventon to busy Bath, and the question of where they would find rented lodgings in the new city was under intense discussion.


“There are three parts of Bath which we have thought of as likely to have Houses in them.—Westgate Buildings, Charles Street, & some of the short streets leading from Laura Place or Pulteney St,” Jane writes to Cassandra, who was visiting their brother Edward in Kent. “Perhaps you may remember, or perhaps you may forget that Charles Street leads from the Queen Square Chapel to the two Green park-Streets.--The Houses in the Streets near Laura Place I should expect to be above our price.—Gay Street would be too high, except only the lower house on the left hand side as you ascend; towards that my Mother has no disinclination. . . . In the meantime she assures you that she will do everything in her power to avoid Trim St altho’ you have not expressed the fearful presentiment of it, which was rather expected.”


For Janeites, this commonplace paragraph is steeped in Austen associations, both literary and biographical. In the five years the Austens lived in Bath, they rented lodgings at four different addresses, including in Green Park, Gay Street, and – when money grew especially tight after the death of the Rev. Austen – the dreaded Trim Street.


Fictional characters also frequented some of the real-life streets Austen mentions in her letter. In Persuasion, Westgate Buildings is the home of Mrs. Smith, Anne Elliot’s impoverished schoolfriend, while the sensible Crofts take lodgings in Gay Street and the Musgrove sisters reject Queen Square as too declassé for a Bath sojourn (chapter 6). Laura Place is the ritzy temporary home of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple – no wonder Austen expected houses in that neighborhood to be out of the family price range! -- and Anne glimpses Captain Wentworth while strolling on Pulteney Street (chapter 19).


Pulteney Street is also where the Allens, in Northanger Abbey, take lodgings; Catherine Morland, on her way to Blaize Castle in John Thorpe’s carriage, has just passed the intersection of Pulteney and Laura Place when she spots the Tilneys on their way to see her (chapter 11).


Family lore has it that Austen didn’t want to move to Bath, and indeed her writing output slowed to a trickle while she lived there. Still, this letter suggests she wasn't immune to the excitement of a new beginning.


“I get more & more reconciled to the idea of our removal,” Austen told Cassandra. “We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly on the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, & the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful.”

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