Two years ago, I traveled to the UK and spent several days exploring and mapping the streets of Bath. Bath is the setting for my novel, The Widow’s Fire, which is an unauthorized sequel to Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion.
This was an expensive research trip and initially I struggled with the necessity. I believed in research and I knew that lived experience is the best research of all. However, the primary reference point for a modern novel which revisits a literary classic is not a geographical setting; it is rather the cultural and psychological landscape the original author created. This landscape lies not upon the streets of any city, especially 200 years after the fact, but rather upon the pages of the novel. The 21st century novelist is addressing a perspective, not an objective reality.
And there was another, somewhat romantically-motivated, qualm. Part of me suspected that modern chain stores, the cafes selling lattes and espressos might be a distraction rather than a help when it came to conjuring the 200-year-old Bath of Austen’s imagination.
But, in the end, I needed to be certain I wasn’t making a mistake. I needed to be sure I wasn’t leaving out a detail. This might be something as intangible as a quality in the atmosphere that might shed a light on the states of mind described in Austen’s work. Bath takes up a lot of space in Austen’s cannon and it is characterized perhaps more carefully, and with more reference to mood, than many of her settings. In Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, it is a city of constant amusement. But it is also a city that does not amuse Austen’s most mature protagonist Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion.
Anne associates Bath with low spirits and sad memories. Its clamour and gossip jars the demure and thoughtful Anne. Bath draws the fashionable and trivial-minded, and it is no accident that this is where her spendthrift father sets up court when he is forced to let the family home, nor is it purely by chance that Bath is where Anne’s duplicitous cousin, Mr. Elliot, should tempt to woo her. This is their city, not hers.
Austen’s Bath is about contrasts, lovely gardens and not always lovely society, grand squares in the central sections of the city, leafy-gardened spacious houses in the opulent north, and narrower, dingier streets in some of the city’s more southerly, and lower, sections. It is here in Westgate Street where Anne, against the wishes of her vain father, visits an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, a widow who has been plunged into poverty. This meeting of two worlds – baronet’s daughter and impoverished widow — and the fact Anne has to journey southwards and downhill is one of the subtle, unstated metaphors Austen was at pains to weave beneath her works.
My first surprise on this trip was that this area of Bath is almost as gentile as the others. Much time has passed, of course, but still the discovery served as a reminder that Austen’s concept of poverty is not quite the same as ours. People genuinely on the fringes – the homeless and hungry – do not feature in her stories.
I had an early draft completed before I set out this journey, and I had already created one protagonist who was entirely beyond the reach of the Austenesque radar, namely a former slave, whimsically named Plato by his late master after his own dedication to the classical world. Plato, now working as a liveried doorman, is one of our guides through the story. Together with the other protagonists – some from Persuasion, some not — Plato is on a quest, like his ancient Greek namesake — to define love. This is really the core of Austen’s universe too. Love that springs out of apparent dislike and resentment, love which has been under the protagonist’s nose all along, love which is patient and kind, in the words of the saint.
Plato was the character who gained most from my visit and through Plato I got the most out of Bath. His perspective helped me to see everything — the graceful semi-circular Royal Crescent, the fine bath stone buildings, and the Assembly Rooms —from an entirely different angle. Luckily it is Austen’s Bath that has survived more or less intact. The Abbey, which was built and rebuilt many times, and the Roman baths tell the city’s layered history, but the Bath that dominates is the same city which provided the social playground described in Austen. I viewed all this through the eyes of Plato, a genuine outsider and one whose family had once been enslaved by the people he now served.
What would Plato have thought, I wondered, of the swirling masses of fashionable people who ignored his presence. More importantly how would he have compared them to the civilizations upon whose ruins this “modern” Bath was built?
Plato was my anachronism in the social idyll of early 1800s Bath. And, for me, it is this contrast, this clash of values, which is the natural seed of unfolding drama.
I was glad I had properly tasted the city of Bath before a second draft. Some things can never be found solely on the page.
Writing Contest Teaser
Watch this blog for news of the next annual writing contest, temporarily taking the space of the Instant Hook Writing Contest. The deadline will be December 31 as usual and there will be no entry fee. However there will be a twist. So, think of your favourite classic (pre-late 20th century) story and in the spirit of post colonialism — or just the spirit of fun if you prefer! — let your creative juices run on the question of how you might bring it to life in your own imagination.