Interested readers, my association with Austenprose’s month-long and comprehensive coverage of Northanger Abbey continues as I visit Beechen Cliff this week. The setting of this site includes some of Catherine Morland’s and Henry Tilney’s most interesting conversations. Here is where Catherine exhibits her wide-eyed naivete towards travel, and her lack of knowledge about art and the picturesque, and where Mr. Tilney’s wit shines:
Henry Tilney, however, is a genuinely witty character. But Jane Austen allows him to flirt with being defined by convention too. When he takes his sister and Catherine for a walk to Beechen Cliff above Bath, he expresses, if he does not actually hold, conventional attitudes toward women, suggesting that they have so much brain power that they seldom use half of it and showing why the narrator cautions a woman in a man’s society, “especially if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing,” to “conceal it as well as she can. – The Invention of Civility in Northanger Abbey, Joseph Wiesenfarth
To illustrate Jane Austen’s words, I will quote only a partial scene from Northanger Abbey, but you can find the entire conversation on The Republic of Pemberley.
They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.
“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”
“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen, a hardy walker, would have had no hesitation in writing a scene that had her heroine and hero walk from Bath’s center, follow a path along the eastern bank of the Avon River, and take a steep sloped path and a flight of steps (known as Jacob’s Ladder) up to Beechen Cliff, which sits 127 meters above sea level. As Ellen Moody writes on her blog: “Northanger Abbey had not conveyed how steep this hill really was. I had attributed Catherine Morland’s satisfaction on Beechen Cliff almost wholly to the lingering memory of a hard-won battle: to go on this country walk with her real friends she had had to fend off the pressure and deceits practised upon her by a brother and two false friends”
Click on the images for a clearer view. The area is still mostly an open public space and almost without development. The flat top of the hill is now known as Alexandra Park, a formal park opened in 1902, and the only extant building on the site is Beechen Cliff School.
Once Henry, Eleanor, and Catherine had attained the Cliff’s heights, they would have been rewarded with a breathtaking view.
It was on Beechen Cliff that Catherine Morland was walking with the Tilneys when Henry discoursed upon the picturesque in Nature – talking of “foregrounds, distances, second distances, side-screens and perspective, lights and shades, and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”- Constance Hill, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, page 120
The slopes to the south and west are much shallower than the north face. One aspect that makes the view from Beechen Cliff so distinctive is the large expanse of uninterrupted sky. This is due to the hill being so high and quite separate from its neighbors.
(Click here to see a spectacular interactive panoramic view of Bath from Beechen Cliff.)
“The steep wooded slope of Beechen Cliff includes a number of well used walkways which are one of the main ways of experiencing the area and accessing the viewpoints.” (Land Use and Buildings, Beechen Cliff and Alexandra Park.) A series of wooden steps leads hikers up the wooded, wild garlic scented hill to the breathtaking views on top. One can see from this series of prints how rapidly Bath grew from 1735 (image below) to the early 19th century (2nd image). There are concerns about modern architectural projects that may mar the view in the future, and about the wild, unclipped bushes and trees that are obscuring the panorama today.
- Jane Austen and Bath, Ellen and Jim Moody
- Sabbatical: A Walk With Jane Austen, Rob Hardy
- Beechen Cliff Roots, Bath Daily Photo
- August in Regency Bath, Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine
- The Invention of Civility in Northanger Abbey, Joseph Wiesenfarth
- Politics and Pleasure Grounds: metaphors of the enclosures of Godwin, Holcroft, and Austen, Helena Kelly