Letters from The Jane Austen Festival 2016 – part one

Thanks to my husband’s interest in military history, we got into the civilian side things in advance of the Waterloo bicentenary last year. After attending the Festival for the past couple of years for the opening weekend only, I had the chance to stay for the full ten days this year.

I have a Regency ‘persona’ which is handy at times like this – that of Baroness Sophia Von Rosenroth, a Prussian noblewoman in England soon after the triumph of Britain and Prussia at Waterloo. I hope you enjoy these letters written home…

My dear sister,

What a remarkable and informative interlude we have spent in Bath! We have been resident here for some time, as the Baron needs to take the waters for his health, while I was sorely missing the shops of Konigsberg. Is a lack of access to shops not an affliction quite as serious as any physical malady? Fortunately, in the city of Bath, there is a great surfeit of water, and a plenitude of wares for purchase. The Baron returned to London for some days in the span of our Bath visit, leaving me quite without acquaintance or moderating influence. More of this later.

I propose giving you a detailed description of my activities on every day of our visit. Do try and pay attention, my sweet silly sister, you may learn a great deal to your advantage. The time is surely approaching when you must travel to a more populous town or city yourself to seek a husband, otherwise you will remain in spinsterhood for eternity. The Baron and I have not the funds or inclination to support your gin and gambling habits if you are not able to establish an independent income of your own through marriage.

Friday 9 September

The Baron’s carriage approached Bath from the east at about 5 o-clock in the afternoon. An interminable journey was made doubly so by an overturned carriage on the Main Road Four, which forced us to take an alternative route past Stonehenge. The Baron complained unceasingly about how many vehicles were slowing down to ‘take pictures’ of this famous edifice, although there was clearly only sufficient time for the briefest of sketches. How absurd he is. After having finally arrived at our Bath lodgings, we were greeted by our hosts in the most welcoming manner imaginable. Hill House in Bath is, I dare say, one of the most convivial and elegant establishments in the vicinity, constituted of that happy blend of ancient charm and modern convenience. Its situation, in the north of the city, is close to the Assembly Rooms and the really fashionable areas, without being noisy or too much frequented by the lower classes.

Following our arrival, there was much to do about getting the luggage to our room, an activity which seemed to take far longer than was necessary. How long does it take to transport seven trunks, five hat boxes, and sundry loose chattels up three floors? The men made such a deal of it, that I grew quite tired of listening to them.

Our dear friends Mr and Mrs H- had already arrived and secured the best room – they really are quite a grasping couple. We expected further addition to our number later in the evening, with the arrival of the delightful Mr and Mrs T-, while Mr and Mrs Sc- would join us in the morning. Mr and Mrs Sm- were sadly unable to join us this year, due to Mrs Sm-‘s interesting condition, let us hope that is soon brought to a successful and joyful conclusion!

Exhaustion soon set in; so many hours of watching the landscape trundle past, combined with the Baron’s unending commentary on the poor condition of the roads and the idiocy of other road users, and the increasing lateness of the hour had drained all my strength. A short retirement soon refreshed me, while the Baron dozed so determinedly I practically had to resort to violence to wake him in time for supper. Mr and Mrs T- duly arrived, similarly inconvenienced by the furious throng on the roads. Once all our goods had been unpacked and displayed to our several tastes, we were finally ready to face the evening. Having consulted our hosts as to the best places for plain fare at a suitable price, we set off and were immediately lost in the myriad streets and emporia of Bath. Fortunately, Mr and Mrs H- were able to steer the party to an establishment they had left only hours earlier, which traded under the somewhat pedestrian name of Dough. The name aside, every thing about this place was a delight, the food plentiful and of the best quality, the attendants quick and helpful, and the décor warm and welcoming. What a pleasure to discover a new foodstuff, the amusingly-named gnocchi! I must instruct our cook to prepare this dish for our next soiree.

Despite the encroaching night, others of the party insisted on continuing the evening at another local hostelry, but my strength failed me. I trudged up the hill to our lodgings, so slowly that the rest of the party was able to ‘get in a few pints’ and very nearly catch me up. Eventually the whole house was settled, sleeping peacefully in anticipation of the morrow.

Saturday 10 September – Promenade and Fair

The first and most populous event of our visit took place on this morning. Dreadful weather had been promised and was duly delivered; an unending drizzle of rain combined with extreme humidity made Bath a positive sauna for sundry and quality alike. Having paid our fee to promenade (as is only right, one does not want to be seen in the company of paupers), we determinedly set out to show the common people how people of consequence are dressing this season.

Mr and Mrs Sc- had now joined our party, and we were all very taken with her smart new spencer. Matching the red wool shako atop her head, the spencer was the very model of fashion, elegance, and style. Mrs Sc- insisted she had sewn the garment herself, a fact which I could scarcely countenance. As if a lady with her many responsibilities and charitable works would have time to do such a thing, and to such a standard! It was clearly the work of a professional seamstress, my suspicion is a French one.

Also joining our party was the delightful Miss N-, whose annual pilgrimage from Scandinavia we have been happy to witness on two previous occasions. Imagine our pleasure on hearing that she had recently permanently settled in England, and attached herself to a stout Yeoman of London. She is persisting in her hobby of writing fiction, a harmless pastime to be sure, but scarcely the activity of a lady.

The dreary weather persisted beyond any thing I could have feared. Scarcely had we left the environs of the Assembly Rooms than the skies darkened to something approaching twilight, and we were plunged into a misty gloom. So many of the common people of Bath had turned out to cheer us, one felt quite miserable for them, in their inadequate footwear, and lack of bonnets. I commented to dear Mrs T- that it was a mercy so few of them had taken the trouble to arrange their hair, the weather being no friend to most styles. I had spared myself the slightest inconvenience, by matching my new green floral gown with the yellow wool spencer (with fur cuffs and collar and coordinating hat). Such sensible colours, and the hat was of the irregular shape which remains unaffected by rain. Thankfully, my seamstress (Mrs Papendick, who also dresses dear Queen Charlotte), is the soul of practicality and good sense. She provides garments which are not only becoming, but practical!

Despite the weather, we set a brisk pace, stopping only for self-portraits with the public. In truth, Bath was not looking its best in the gloomy murk, and I began to tire quite early in the route. As always, the cheerful demeanour of my fellow promenaders was a great tonic. So many wonderous outfits to be seen!

Now entirely soaked, my spirits lifted at the thought of the Fair which was waiting for us at the conclusion of the promenade. However, the Baron, in his tedious manner, had convinced our friends that the wisest course of action was to refresh ourselves prior to embarking on the shopping portion of the afternoon. If only he knew what a torment it is to me to be restrained by a single second when the prospect of luxury goods is in sight! I suspect his oblivion in this regard is largely self-serving, as the foolish man believes that any delay will somehow subvert my ability to spy out the best bargains. Fortunately, I had taken the precaution of securing a commission from my milliner (Farthingale Historical Hats) in advance, so I knew I would not be leaving empty handed, regardless of the greed of my fellow promenaders. Indeed, the hiatus reduced the crush in the main hall quite effectively.

On entering the Octagon, all manner of goods caught my eye. Upon the very first table, a fan constructed of peacock feathers, and a perfect match for the ballgown I had planned for the Masked Ball, presented itself as though it had been waiting a lifetime for me to snatch it up! The cost was high, but not unreachable. Although I replaced it in order to collect my hat from the milliner, the fact that it was still unsold when I returned several minutes later, I took to be a sign. While the Baron was perusing clocked stockings, I was able to acquire the fan and add it to my general purchases. The hat I had requested was a delight, trimmed with grey and pink feathers to match my new dark grey pelisse which was so much admired at Spetchley Park earlier in the season. I had repeatedly told the Baron that my maintenance of a proper wardrobe is essential to his military preferment, but the ungrateful wretch is all astonishment at the cost of such. As though quality garments can be purchased for a song!

Please try and pay attention to this and future missives, in which I will continue to recount the events of the Festival in such a way as to improve your own understanding of the world. I fear that your upbringing in Prussia, and consequent ‘European’ manners will not serve you in circumstances such as these. The very height of manners and decorum must be displayed at all times, and we are all familiar with your current tendency to challenge people to duels, dress as a man and go drinking, and surround yourself with dubious acquaintance.

I will write again soon, try to stay sober for a sufficient period to digest this letter’s contents before the next arrives.

Your affectionate sister,

Sophie Von Rosenroth (Baroness)