Display, Representation and Fashion in Jane Austen's Bath - Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma

Seminar Paper, 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



A) Introduction

B) Display, Representation and Fashion in Jane Austen’s Bath – “Northanger Abbey”, “Persuasion” and “Emma”
1. The different characters’ attitudes towards Bath
1.1. Emma
1.2. Persuasion
1.3. Northanger Abbey
2. Bath Shops in the Novels
3. Bath as a marriage market
4. A Jane Austen map of Bath – Fashionable Places
4.1. Public Places
4.2. Private Places

C) Conclusion

D) Literature

Appendix: Map of Bath


The city of Bath has served as the scene of many 18th and 19th century novels, like Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Tobias Smollet’s Roderick Random, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and, of course, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; Persuasion and Emma. In Bath, one could find the quintessence of all the illusions, values and conflicts of the 18th century (Hill 1989: 2); its rules of etiquette fixed by Richard ‘Beau’ Nash influenced ‘the manners of the entire nation throughout the Georgian era’. An official Bath guide read that the city had ‘become one of the most agreeable as well as most polite places in the Kingdom’ (Watkins 1990: 178). But as the century wore on, the spa became less fashionable, the nobility became bored of it, and middle class people swamped the town. The three novels by Jane Austen mentioned above date from this time, when Bath’s heyday was over.

In my opinion, it is particularly interesting to take a look on the image of Bath as it is conveyed by these three novels, because of the different viewpoints of the characters: In Northanger Abbey, the city is described from a middle class perspective, in Persuasion from an upper class perspective, and in Emma, where none of the action actually takes place in Bath, we get an idea of what people in the country thought about the city of Bath; it is described from an extern point of view.

This paper will examine the literary characterisation of the city as a place of amusement (balls, concerts, etc.), display and representation by looking at the characters’ attitudes towards Bath and the purpose of their stay there. The further aim is a cultural description of the city with regard to its fashionableness, based on the novels of Jane Austen.


1. The different characters’ attitudes towards Bath

1.1 Emma

In Emma, the only character that is really enthusiastic about Bath is Mrs Elton who is described as being very disagreeable to Emma Woodhouse, from whose perspective the reader approaches the story. According to Emma, Mr. Elton’s bride is ‘a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking very much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar.’ (Emma: 205) Mrs Elton embodies the type of person that frequented Bath after its beginning decline following the death of Beau Nash († 1761), the famous Master of Ceremonies who turned the town into a highly fashionable spa. After his decease, Bath gradually lost its splendour and exclusiveness and the aristocracy started spending their winters elsewhere, like in the sea baths which were becoming more and more popular. Middle class visitors were spreading over the town, many of them pretending to be wealthier, more important and of more distinguished origin than they actually were; just as Mrs Elton, the former Miss Augusta Hawkins does. She is a little wealthy, indeed, with a dowry of nearly 10.000 £, but she brings ‘no blood, no name, no alliance’ (Emma: 138): Her father was a petty merchant from Bristol. (Emma remarks: ‘[…] as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also .’ (Emma: 138).) Moreover, Bristol was not a very well-famed city at that time, as Deirdre le Faye explains: ‘Bristol was renowned as a squalid, overcrowded sea-port and commercial centre closely linked with the slave trade. It was greasy and smelly […]’ (Le Faye 2002: 271). Mrs Elton’s only connection worth mentioning is a Mr. Suckling of Maple Grove, her elder sister’s husband, ‘a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages! […] that was the glory of Miss Hawkins’ (Emma: 138). Nevertheless, she pretends to be of the upper class, she boasts of her connections and accomplishments, and believes herself superior to Emma and all the people at Highbury, thinking that she is the one who brings a touch of class and the splendour of high society to the country neighbourhood[1]. When she recommends a visit to Bath to Emma for the sake of Mr. Woodhouse’s health, she adds that this would certainly be a ‘charming introduction’ to society for Emma, who has ‘lived so secluded a life’ (Emma: 207); and offers her the help of her friend, a certain Mrs Partridge, to be her chaperone and introduce her to ‘some of the best society of the place’.[2] Emma’s dignity, of course, is very offended by this proposal, and she imagines Mrs Partridge to be ‘some vulgar, dashing widow, who, with the help of a boarder, just made a shift to live!’ (Emma: 207) Emma’s attitude towards Bath is about the same as the one towards Mrs Elton, although one can suppose that she has formed this opinion of the town only after getting to know Mrs Elton and her ‘Bath-acquired pretentiousness’ (Hill 1989: 51); that she scorns Bath because she scorns her whom she connects closely with the place. She wants to mark a clear difference between the Bath people of Mrs Elton’s kind and the ones of Highbury: ‘[…] we are a very quiet set of people, I believe; more disposed to stay at home than engage in schemes of pleasure.’ (Emma: 206) Later, she states that ‘[her father’s and her] going to bath was quite out of the question, and she was not perfectly convinced that the place might suit her better than her father’, who has already tried it several times, ‘but without receiving any benefit’ (Emma: 207). Other people of her company do not seem to be inclined to go to Bath either, obviously preferring the sea-baths, like the Knightley family who went to South End, or Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, who got to know each other at Weymouth.

1.2 Persuasion

One can detect, roughly speaking, three kinds of attitudes towards Bath in the characters of Persuasion. The first one is similar to the one of Mrs Elton from Emma, seeing Bath as a place where you can display your fortune, your importance and your popularity. The snobbish Sir Walter Elliot and his eldest daughter Elizabeth certainly belong to this group: After the debts caused by his extravagant lifestyle have forced him to rent out the family seat, Kellynch Hall, the baronet decides to move to Bath, because ‘he might there be important at comparatively little expense’ (Persuasion: 12). When the second daughter, Anne, who feels the degradation in their change of situation, joins the family at Bath a few months later, she finds her father and sister perfectly satisfied and in excellent spirits. ‘Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden Place, their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of, […] Their acquaintance was exceedingly sought after. Everybody was wanting to visit them. They had drawn back from many introductions, and still were perpetually having cards left[3] by people of whom they knew nothing.’ (Persuasion: 134) Sir Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s extreme fondness for Bath fits perfectly to their vain, vacuous personalities, which make them care for nothing but outward appearance and titles. Elizabeth, for example, always used to scorn and ignore Frederick Wentworth, her sister Anne’s former fiancée, but after he has become Captain in the Navy and amassed prize-money of £25.000.-, she suddenly invites him to their party: ‘The truth was, that Elizabeth had been long enough in Bath to understand the importance of a man of such an air and appearance as his. The past was nothing. The present was that Captain Wentworth would move about well in her drawing-room.’ (Persuasion: 227) Their devotion to titles is also the reason why Elizabeth and Sir Walter Elliot, who usually look disparagingly on others, make every humiliating effort to renew the acquaintance with their noble cousins, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and the Honourable Miss Carteret[4], although these are actually somewhat plain and common.

Lady Russell, Anne Elliot’s maternal friend, also belongs to this first category, although she is a rather moderate representative of this group: she doesn’t reject Anne’s visiting Mrs Smith, for example, a widowed old schoolfellow now almost excluded from society because of her husband’s bankruptcy. But she is very fond of Bath and its pleasures, that’s why she, although very sensible to noise (she thought the tumult of the Musgroves’ numerous children insupportable at Christmas, whereas Mrs Musgrove found this ‘domestic hurricane’ (Persuasion: 132) very agreeable), makes no complaint about the considerable noise in the Bath roads[5] when she enters the town. On the contrary, to her, ‘these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence’ (Persuasion: 132).


[1] „She had a little beauty and a little accomplishment, but so little judgement that she thought herself coming with superior knowledge of the world, to enliven and improve a country neighbourhood.” (Emma: 211).

[2] “A line from me would bring you a little host of acquaintance; and my particular friend, Mrs Partridge, the lady I have always resided with when in Bath, would be most happy to shew you any attentions, and would bet he very person for you to go in public with.“ (Emma: 207).

[3] To „leave one’s card“ was a widespread way to make or improve acquaintances in the 19th century. “When you came to town, you drove around with your footman to the houses of those you wished to notify of your presence”. The footman gave a card bearing your name to the butler, who put it on a salver in the hall, where all the visitors could “see whom the family numbered among its social circle and be suitably impressed.” (cf. Persuasion, where the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and the Hon. Miss Carteret are “arranged where they might be most visible”). The lady of the house then returned a card to you or even made a call and visited you (Pool 1993: 66).

[4] ‚Anne had never seen her father and sister before in contact with nobility, and she must acknowledge herself disappointed. She had hoped better things from their high ideas of their own situation in life, and was reduced to form a wish which she had never foreseen; a wish that they had more pride’ (Persuasion: 146).

[5] ‘[…] the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of patterns’ (Persuasion: 132)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Display, Representation and Fashion in Jane Austen's Bath - Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma
University of Hamburg  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Proseminar "From Funny Fop to Dangerous Dandy - Fashion in 17th and 18th Century Literature"
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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1185 KB
Display, Representation, Fashion, Jane, Austen, Bath, Northanger, Abbey, Persuasion, Emma, Proseminar, From, Funny, Dangerous, Dandy, Fashion, Century, Literature
Quote paper
Judith Huber (Author), 2003, Display, Representation and Fashion in Jane Austen's Bath - Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/18402


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