Jane Austen Wrote Here (And Here, Too)

I love traveling with fellow smartasses. It makes the journey so much more enjoyable when you can trade snide jokes with the person standing next to you. Bath was a haven for us in that respect. But let me back up.

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Flowers in a park in Bath

While I’m in London, I actually have to go to school (which totally cuts into my wandering-around-aimlessly time). I think I’ve already alluded to the Shakespeare class I’m in, but I haven’t mentioned the other, far more enviable class. It’s called “Jane Austen to Downton Abbey: Literature of the Country House” and the reading list is spectacular. We just finished Pride and Prejudice and are now 100 pages into Wuthering Heights. Tough work, but someone’s gotta do it. Every class we take a field trip to some literature-y place in London. Thursday we went to British Library and toured their “Treasures of the British Library Collection.” A bit of a step up from the Special Collections I work in back home. Their collection includes a Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s manuscript for Emma, and the original lyrics to “Yesterday” in Paul McCartney’s handwriting. And this is only a few objects. Literally every single major British writer (Shakespeare has his own section) is represented in this display case. (They don’t allow pictures inside or I would share some.)

We were there specifically to see Jane Austen’s writing desk. Now when I said desk, you’re picturing like a chair and table, right? Like something we all had in our college dorm rooms? Nope, it’s like a little tray-thing that flips open to be a flat surface. A little underwhelming but still– How cool! Jane Austen literally write on this thing. You almost want to press your face against the glass and see if you can catch some of that creative spirit, but not really because that would look really weird.

We wandered around until making our way to (where else?) the gift shop. Let me just say that the British Library is losing its mind over this whole Magna Carta anniversary thing, and it’s really starting to show. The Magna Carta will be 800 years old this year (Isn’t it marked on your calendar?), and the British Library is super excited and wants you to be, too. They sell (I’m not making any of this up): Magna Carta facsimiles, bound copies, CDs, pillows, soap, whiskey, and rubber ducks. So you could hypothetically sit in the tub listening to Magna Carta music, drinking your Magna Carta whiskey, while you read the Magna Carta to your Magna Carta rubber duck before going to sleep on your Magna Carta pillow. But there’s this desperation in their celebration. Like “Please care about this as much we do! This is such a big deal until 2040 when the Magna Carta is 825, and we try to sell you the same stuff all over again!” (For real though, as someone who has written papers about obscure works of art, I totally get their vibe.)

I just bought a Jane Austen Christmas ornament. Because it didn’t happen unless you got the Christmas ornament to prove it, right?

Friday we went to Bath where Jane Austen spent some time during her life. Bath totally embodies my theory that England can perfectly balance past and present. Like, you pass an Apple store on the way to the Roman baths. Which prompted many smart-ass remarks of “Did Jane Austen get her iPhone here? Did she shop at that Urban Outfitters? Isn’t there a scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy goes into a Tesco?” We had lunch at a local pub where they display Jane Austen’s picture (making all of my #JaneAustenDrankHere dreams come true!). I don’t think she actually drank here, but whatever. Let me dream, okay?

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#JaneAustenDrankHere
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The pub where we had lunch

We toured the Roman baths for about an hour. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bill Bryson has a little audio tour here. I’m trying to read his book on the U.K. called Notes from a Small Island, and I can’t get into it yet. But he has a nice voice. Also, I hate to brag, but I’m basically an audio guide connoisseur at this point. Just a little something for the CV. (But can I still be a connoisseur if I had to look up how to spell “connoisseur”?)

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Roman baths
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Sculpture of Roman emperor with Bath Abbey in the background
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Goddess Minerva who was worshipped at the Roman temple

The baths are really cool, or well, warm. They take you through a tour about how it used to be a huge temple complex, too. I won’t bore you with all the history of it because I have already forgotten most of it. However, I do remember that at the end there is little tasting room. Well, not a room. More like a corner with a sink in it. And the famous Bath water. It reminded me of the scene in The Office when they get the aluminum water bottles from Sabre, and they’re like “It tastes like I’m drinking batteries!” Yeah, Bath water is like drinking batteries. Or, as Charles Dickens said, like “warm flat irons.” They put that quote on the wall next to the sink! Like they’re proud  of their weird water! And we all have to go along with it because it’s historic. It’s the Emperor’s New Water.

Their gift shop was really cool, though. They sell lots of soap. Bath bath soap. And little bottles of their water which you would buy, presumably, for your enemies. (The sore throat I’ve had this weekend developed after drinking the water in case you were wondering why I’m so bitter about it.) And they had Latin translations of the first two Harry Potter books. Which I kinda regret not getting. Because no one taught me Latin in my 13 years of Catholic school, then I should probably learn it from a book about witchcraft, right?

After the baths, we went to the Royal Crescent which was basically the Hollywood Hills of 18th-century Britain. More “Did Jane Austen touch this lamppost?!” jokes. After that some of use noticed a church higher up the hill (Bath is like a giant hill), and when you’re wearing shoes with poor arch support and you see something that’s far away on a hill, you should go look at it. Bonus points if you’re a little dehydrated.

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Royal Crescent
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The church that was closed
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Bath Abbey– also closed when we got back to the town center

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After we traipsed up the hill and discovered the church was locked, we walked around Avon Lake that runs though the town. They have a small pet cemetery in the park next to it. Then we bought some gross sandwiches for the ride home.

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Avon River
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Avon River
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Street art

Okay, before I end this: is Bath named for the Roman baths? Like, was everyone just like “We have these bath things, let’s just call it “Bath”? Bill Bryson did not talk about this in the audio tour.

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