People have always gathered in social centers. There is something to be said for the importance of social gatherings and relating to others in a communal way. Today there is a new appreciation and longing for the ability to gather in large groups of people for community. We are appreciative of the opportunity to connect online, but I imagine that others, like me, miss something about knowing that there were certain social centers where community happened. There was always a promise of seeing your people there and meeting new people, the combination which always produced an elation and emotion of exploration.
In Jane Austen’s novels, all of her plots center around a few families living in the country and the profoundly simple stories which are birthed out of the sparse social structures. However, many of her young female protagonists are taken to the city to take in the fashion, socialize, learn the ways of the world, and meet new people. Jane Bennett and Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are taken to London, while Anne Elliot and Catherine Moreland travel to Bath. Bath and London were the social centers of the day and leaders in fashion.
Bath in Regency Era
Bath became the height of social life outside of London in the Regency Era – the city itself is a unique Georgian metropolis which was exploding in popularity while Austen lived there. From 1702 (when Queen Anne came to visit) to 1802 (when Jane Austen lived in Bath) the population multiplied from 2,000 to 30,000. Public balls were held at least twice a week in Bath, there were theatrical events, concerts, and gatherings. It was a place where a young girl, like Catherine Moreland, was taken to meet eligible young men and learn how to socialize in polite society. For characters like Catherine Moreland who had grown up in a more provincial setting, the city seemed to be the antithesis of isolation.
“Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly. But to her utter amazement she found that to proceed along the room was by no means the way to disengage themselves from the crowd; it seemed rather to increase as they went on, whereas she had imagined that when once fairly within the door, they should easily find seats and be able to watch the dances with perfect convenience. But this was far from being the case, and though by unwearied diligence they gained even the top of the room, their situation was just the same; they saw nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies.”
Chapter 2, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
History of Bath
The city of Bath in Somerset county of England has always held a special draw for the societies of the day. Limestone aquifers heated by the earth’s core come up through the earth in thermal springs which have been considered to have healing or spiritual properties since ancient civilization. By 75 AD, Roman armies had come into Bath and built religious/spa complexes around the thermal springs in the area.
By the time Jane Austen lived in Bath in 1801 (then the eighth largest city in England), the city had seen a recent return to popularity which led to renovations and reconstruction. A century before Austen moved to Bath, the first Pump Rooms opened as a medicinal and social center where people in the city went to “take the waters” – or drink prescribed quantities of the thermal spring waters. The number of people coming to take the waters quickly outgrew the first Pump Room. As construction began to expand the Pump Room, there was a discovery of a Roman temple from the 1st century built to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. If you have seen the movie ‘Mamma Mia’ you might relate to my feeling of elation as I thought about the discovery of the spring of Aphrodite at the end of the movie. That scene definitely seems to have a reverberation of history in it!
“It was in digging for the foundation of this building that the valuable and interesting remains of the Roman temple of Minerva were discovered. So far did the new buildings surpass those of the old town in architectural beauty that steps were taken in 1789 for modernizing and improving it.”
In the Pump Room, visitors would be milling around from early morning to midafternoon and promenaded up and down the great room seeing and being seen by others. There was an orchestra which played in the Pump Room while visitors drank the medicinal water and socialized.
“I went to the Pump Room, which is very large and grand. On one side is the pump, where a woman stands and distributes old King Bladud’s waters to old and young, sick and ill. An old duchess of eighty and a child of four were both drinking the waters while I was there. I had a glass; it is very hot and tastes very mineral. At one end of the room is an orchestra, where bands of music are continually playing. The company at the same time walking up and down in crowds, not minding the music, but buzzing like merchants on ‘change.”
“In Georgian society, most entertaining took place at home. Gentlemen would sometimes visit coffee houses or the new gentleman’s clubs, but ladies would gather in the home. Assembly rooms were one of the few public places where it was socially acceptable for both sexes to meet, dance and enjoy themselves.”
The Bath Assembly Rooms, completed in 1771, were the most famous Assembly Rooms of the Regency Era. The public paid a fee to dance and gamble in the rooms. There was a Master of Ceremonies who would make formal introductions and enforce rules of polite society.
The most famous Master of Ceremonies was Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the MoC at Bath from 1735 to 1761. He was famous for being a leader in fashion and polite society and a celebrated dandy (self-made man known to focus on appearance and reputation). He also famously had a confrontation with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
Beau Nash essentially set the idea of what a MoC should be, and he set the tone and trajectory for the Assembly rooms at Bath to be one of the most fashionable places in Georgian England because of his rules for polite behavior.
Enjoy the Gossip
I hope this piece about Regency Era socializing has been a source of entertainment and distraction from isolation for you, dear readers. If you want to learn more about the extremely entertaining gossip that went on in the public rooms of Bath, stay tuned for my next project coming soon! In the meantime, check out some of the resources linked in this post to learn more about Socializing in Regency Era Bath!