Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli has frequently contributed his comments on this blog. Little did I know that he was an author! He has graciously sent in his thoughts about Bath, the city in which he has set his historical crime novel. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!
Beau Nash turned the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.
Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.
For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country.
By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter.
Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population was increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying, “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”
Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the poor drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in a letter to her sister, “We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”
By the time Persuasion was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the many fine shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid.
The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population.
My novel, Avon Street is set in Bath in 1850. But Bath isn’t just a setting. It is a character in its own right. In writing Avon Street, I have tried to take the reader beyond the Georgian facades, and reveal a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. Bath was a city, where things were often not as they seemed, where people as Austen said, could “be important at comparatively little cost.” In short it is the ideal setting for a story of confidence tricksters and crime, intrigue and betrayal. A city where enemies can seem all-powerful, and friends are sometimes found where least expected.
In Persuasion Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness – “Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.” (Click here to see an image of Westgate Buildings in 1900.) It seemed only fitting that the first chapter of my book be set in the same location, on the borders of the Avon Street area.
More about Avon Street and Paul Emanuelli: Why Avon Street?
Avon Street: Purchase information
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd (1 Feb 2012)