In the early 19th century, while most were toiling in factories and grappling with the industrial revolution, an elite few were preoccupied with a different set of priorities. The Bath that Jane Austen experienced was that of high society, a select group to which she herself belonged and which inspired much of her writing.
Bath’s phase as the playground of the rich and upper-class began in the early 18th century, when Beau Nash, a wealthy gambler and socialite, took it upon himself to raise huge sums to reinvent the increasingly shabby city. He built and invested to the point that Bath rivalled London as the place to ‘be seen’. Anointing himself with the unofficial title of ‘Master of Ceremonies’, Nash would meet new arrivals to the city and judge whether they were sufficiently classy to join the elite group of 500 or so people who comprised high society. He would also match ladies to ‘appropriate’ dance partners, help to arrange marriages, and subtly encourage the men not to bet the family estate on a dodgy hand after one too many dry sherries. Bath’s newfound status as a haven for socialites inevitably also brought about more employment in the area – those sedan chairs didn’t carry themselves! – and, as the local economy boomed, the population rose from 2,000 to 30,000 over the course of the 18th century.
Although Nash died before Austen’s time, the culture that he had helped put into place was still going strong when she lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806. Two of her novels – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – were predominantly set in Bath, and most of her writing revolved around the upper-class social scene of balls and promenades. The Pump Room was the hub of most social activity in the city, and the décor and atmosphere haven’t changed much since.
Austen often satirised the obsession among society women with teas, dances and matchmaking. However, although it might seem frivolous today, at the time, a woman’s life chances could be materially impacted by a few afternoon teas with the right bachelor. The class system in Britain was very rigid (imagine!), and women had little prospect of equal treatment or self-determination, so the incentive to find a husband of a suitable rank (and for men to find a wife with a suitable inheritance) was very strong. For young upper-class women, attending dances and fluttering their fans like their lives depended on it was the equivalent of revising for their A-Levels.
By the end of her time in Bath, Austen and her family had gradually sunk to a state of ‘genteel poverty’. After her father’s death, the family were almost entirely reliant on charitable contributions from richer friends and relatives, and their living conditions had worsened considerably, although this of course is in relative terms. There are far worse fates for a Bath resident in Georgian times than living in Westgate Buildings with your rent paid by a benevolent uncle, embarrassing though that undoubtedly was. In the end, it may well have been her position as something of an underdog in high society which enabled her to view it from an outsider’s perspective and satirise how the 1% lived so effectively.