|Courtest Terence James|
Although Jane Austen is acknowledged as one of the greatest writers English literature has ever produced, she is not without her critics.
One of the main accusations leveled at her though, is not concerned about what she actually wrote, but rather what she left out. The main subject for these detractors being the Napoleonic Wars, which raged throughout Europe during the majority of Jane’s writing life and ended not long before her death. To read her writing though, you would not know they even existed.
The same is true of the darker side of Regency Bath; the city she visited in the late 1790s, the place she was resident during the opening years of the nineteenth century and the main location for two of her novels; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
For the characters of these two works, and for the author herself, Bath seemed a pleasure ground of immeasurable capacity. A place the rich, famous and elite, followed not far behind by the emerging middle classes, chose to spend a good part of their year; indulging in all kind of social engagements, while at the same time, for the most part, taking the waters in order to improve their health.
Bath has been termed the Las Vegas of its day, but even in this American Mecca to gambling, there lay a sinister underbelly to its glitzy façade. The man who ‘founded’ it, Bugsy Siegal, for example, was assassinated in his own home by a gunman; the identity of which remains unknown to this day, although it is strongly suspected the mafia were behind the hiring of the killer.
And like Las Vegas, Bath had a dark side, full of disreputable elements; an area where the characters of Jane’s novels or acquaintances in her actual life would fear to tread. It was known as the Avon Street district – although the locals merely knew it as ‘The Hate’ – and it was located in the south of the city, near the river which gave it its name.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, royalty, in the shape of Queen Anne, came to Bath to take the waters – the mineral waters were heralded to contain properties that could ward off all kind of ailments – and with a royal seal of approval the city began a period of expansion and popularity it has never really lost.
In the years that followed the royal visits, as the elite followed suit, a city that for the most part remained firmly entrenched within its medieval walls and attitude found itself at the centre of an architectural explosion rarely seen in history, resulting in a city the envy of the whole of Europe.
In practical terms, this meant development outwards from the medieval city in all directions. The east saw various parades built, the west gained a number of magnificent squares, and to the north were erected the crowning architectural achievements of the King’s Circus and the Royal Crescent.
In the south of the city, however, it was a different story. With its close proximity to the river, this southern area was for all intents and purposes situated on a flood plain; ideally suited for pastoral grazing for the months the land was not under water, but totally incongruous for building on. In a climate of unbridled greed and ever increasing demand for accommodation, however, it did not take long before plans were being made for elegant and fashionable lodging houses on the land, with only the flimsiest attempt at flood prevention.
Once built and after the inevitable flooding happened, the houses swiftly ceased to be acceptable as dwelling-places to the upper and middle class visitors they were intended to attract. As the buildings became uninhabitable to all but the poorest of occupants, the whole district, named after the largest street within it, Avon Street, became ever more dilapidated and synonymous with the criminal element. Because along with the poor, destitute and immigrants, came thieves, pick-pockets and brothel-keepers, as well as all kinds of undesirables with nefarious occupations.
And it was into this setting, the beginning of the nineteenth century, that myself and a co-writer, Terence James, decided to set a fictional detective. Known as The Regency Detective, reflecting the period it is set in, our main character, Jack Swann, finds himself having to frequently enter the Avon Street district’s foreboding warren of passages and alleyways during the investigations he undertakes.
Swann’s back story is such that he is able to move easily between the two worlds which existed in nineteenth century Bath – the Austenesque ‘world’, which we probably know best through the television adaptations of her two ‘Bath’ novels (as well as the books themselves) and this darker, more notorious side that perhaps not unsurprisingly was never mentioned in city guide books.
Whether Jane Austen ever visited Avon Street district is not known, although it would seem unlikely given its reputation, while the nearest readers ever get to it through her writing is within Persuasion. It is in this book that she placed Mrs. Smith, a former tutor of Anne Elliot, in lodgings in Westgate Street; and although the address is outside the district’s boundaries, it is still only a stone’s throw from the northern end of Avon Street.
The Avon Street district retained its salubrious and dangerous reputation throughout the Victorian age – the suitably titled Avon Street, by Paul Emmanuelle, is set in the city during this time – and well into the twentieth century, when it was known as the city’s main red light district in the post-war years.
The majority of the area, however, was eventually demolished during the infamous Sack of Bath of the 1960s and 1970s and for many residents the phrase ‘good riddance’ was no doubt uttered.
Yet although it may now be gone, it should not be forgotten, for whenever one thinks of Jane Austen’s Bath, one should always remember that there are two sides to every story, even if one of those sides (outside the confines of fiction) now resides in the dark shadowy recesses of history.
The Regency Detective series was created and written by David Lassman and Terence James and is published by The History Press. The latest book in the series, The Circle of Sappho, was published in earlier this year.