Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Researching my Home City by Marie-Louise Jensen

Researching Bath in the eighteenth century has proved to be a real adventure. You think you know your own city. I certainly thought I knew mine. After all, I've been round all the museums many times. I've done the walks and the bus tours. I've shown visitors around. But when I started to research a specific time period, I realised that my knowledge was at best superficial and at worst completely wrong.
The surprises began to mount up. For example, I didn't know that the gracious Georgian city I'm lucky enough to live in, and that so many tourists visit, was built mainly after the really fashionable period of its history was over.
The Bath the the rich aristocracy flocked to 'the better to enjoy each other's company and win one another's money as they had done in London in the winter', was a tiny, dirty, cramped medieval city, still entirely enclosed by its city walls. The Bath that Beau Nash reigned over as uncrowned king didn't even get a dedicated ballroom for some twelve years. Refuse was piled high in the streets, dogs ran everywhere, the lighting was haphazard and the sedan chairmen robbed, cheated and persecuted their wealthy passengers.
Now doesn't that sound like a much more promising basis for a story than a sedate promenade on clean, new streets and sober and respectable balls? There is certainly far more scope for danger and adventure.
I've finally bothered to read the little notice on a scrappy piece of stonework in Saw Close, and found out that it's a fragment of the old city walls; one of only two remaining. And looking on maps of the old city really brings home just how tiny it was before fame and fortune brought about the explosive late-Georgian expansion.
The image of all those reputedly badly-behaved, obsessive gambling, gossiping and pleasure seeking nobles all crammed into such a small space is a vivid one. And I'm not sure I'll ever view Bath in the same way again.


Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating! And was this the Jane Austen period Bath also?

Jan Markley said...

I've been there, it's a lovely city. What would all of us find if we looked at our city from a different perspective!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Sounds as if its a bit like being an archaeologist or even anthropologist... and a wonderful excuse to browse and sit and write notes in coffee shops!!! Two weeks ago I spent a wonderful day in Bath walking (in the rain)through the park beneath the Royal Crescent and amongst other things viewing that outdoor exhibition of aerial photographs of incredible sites and landscapes in the UK.

catdownunder said...

I want to read more about it!

Sue Purkiss said...

That's amazing - there's an end to walking through Bath picturing Jane Austen characters walking along there being witty!

Leslie Wilson said...

I'm looking forward to the book, Marie-Louise! And - if I can get on my hobby horse - it proves my point about the benefits of research! You might have just assumed Bath was indeed the city it is today, and gone on to write. But the detective work has - as you say - unveiled something much more interesting. I find this all the time.