Apple Tree Cottage
21 March 1979
It is the first day of spring, but the weather does not show much respect for dates on a calendar. This morning a gale is blowing from the Channel, and this afternoon I will have to get out the ladder and go on the roof to check that no tiles are missing. But the daffodils are in flower under the hedges. While he was working in London, Shakespeare remembered the daffodils of Warwickshire.
They ‘come before the swallow dares and take
The winds of March with beauty’.
They still do, and the March winds are still blowing! Shakespeare got it right, as usual!
The day trip was the vicar’s idea from the start. He suggested an excursion to Bath and after sorting out the best day to go and how many cars to go in and who was to drive them, yesterday we finally went. There were just four of us in the end. My Uncle put on his best suit for the occasion, and I persuaded Theresa to come along with us too.
Bath is about twenty miles from Berringford on a winding road that crosses many other winding roads that skirt the Mendip Hills. It is not a road to hurry on and we took the best part of an hour to get there.
We started with the obligatory visits. We walked to the Crescent and round the Circle and we visited the Roman Baths. What a city! Then, on our way down Milsom Street, the Vicar and my uncle started talking about Jane Austen and whether she was happy during the few years she lived in Bath. She certainly wasn’t when she first arrived in the city. When her father retired and announced to the family that they were to move to Bath, Jane apparently fainted. She had to agree to leave the village she loved and had grown up in and to go to live in the vanities of the city. But someone like Jane Austen could not be unhappy all the time. She was not one to mope, so I am sure that she made something of it. Still when she finally left Bath, with her mother and sister, it was “with what happy feelings of release!”
Go to Bath for it is not only worth seeing but also worth going to see, to use Dr Johnson’s distinction about the value of tourist destinations. The Roman Baths and the Pump Rooms, the Crescent and the Circus are worth going to see. Mary Shelley wrote much of ‘Frankenstein’ in a room near the Abbey. The astronomers, the Herschels, William and Caroline, lived there. Fame has always given more praise to the brother but now time is finally righting the balance for it seems that much of the important work was done by his sister. Only now are women being recognised for what they achieved in science, and it is about time too.
We walked along Pulteney Street which is where Catharine Morland stayed on her first visit to Bath. She had been invited by her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, to spend a few weeks with them there. Read ‘Northanger Abbey’. It is a light, cheerful book, and Catherine is perhaps the most engaging of all Jane Austen’s heroines. Her six novels are basically the stories of young women who mange to understand themselves better. If you have read ‘Northanger Abbey’ already, then pick it up once more. So many of the characters in ‘Northanger Abbey’ are pleasant people, not in any dramatic way but in the little things of the day to day, which are, in fact, the important things. We read of small acts of kindness which are so different from the grand gestures. We often make those to boost our own moral scorecard rather than to help anybody. There are selfish characters, of course. There is the greed of General Tilney. There is also the arrogance of the vacuous John Thorpe, but these are outweighed by the genuine kindness of so many others.
First there is Catherine herself, who thinks ill of no one, and is generous to a fault, though let us come back to Catherine later.
John Thorpe is a brainless nuisance. In her innocence Catherine does not know what to make of his comments about the gig of her brother, James. He tells her “There is not a sound piece of iron about it. I would not be bound to go two miles in it for fifty thousand pounds!” Yet the next minute he says, “The carriage is safe enough if a man knows how to drive it. I would undertake for five pounds to drive it to York and back again without losing a nail!” Today he would have talked about second-hand cars. “James’s car is a load of scrap. He can hardly drive it around the streets of Bath without bits falling off! But I could drive it up the M4 from here to London without a problem”. In those days an arrogant, loud young man like Thorpe was called “a rattle”, and it is a pity the word is no longer around today. It could be used so often.
But, back to acts of kindness. Take the Allens. Well, take Mr Allen, at least, because Mrs Allen is another of Jane Austen’s empty-headed people. In fact, a case can be made for dividing all her characters into the intelligent and the stupid. Poor Mrs Allen clearly falls into the second group. Jane Austen was very clever indeed. Today she would be teaching English at Corpus Christi, Oxford, or Trinity Hall, Cambridge and would appear regularly on documentaries on TV. She would also have a weekly column in ‘The Independent’ or ‘The Times’. She was clever, and so forgive her for being hard on less intelligent mortals in her novels. It must have been frustrating to see the less gifted around her prosper just because they were men and had money.
Consider for a moment how she can express a thought. The Allens invited Catherine to Bath to give her an enjoyable time and to introduce her to people and places she would never otherwise have known. They go out of their way to make her happy. By doing that they also enjoyed themselves more than they would have done on their own. Goodness rebounds! How concisely Jane Austen expresses this. In a couple of sentences above, I used 26 words to say this. Now, don’t look at the next paragraph yet! Just rephrase the idea yourself and see how many words you have to use.
Done that? Here’s Jane Austen’s solution. Catherine has left the Allens when invited to Northanger Abbey. The Allens miss her “in the promotion of whose enjoyment their own had been greatly increased”. How neat! Just 12 words!
Take Catherine then, so genuine and open that she cannot imagine the trickery and meanness of others. She does not see through Isabella Thorpe until well into the story. What a repulsive pair John and Isabella Thorpe make! Catherine does not realise how attractive she is herself. “But Catherine did not know that a good-looking girl with an affectionate heart, and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man.” Henry Tilney does not stand a chance! Read the book!
I can’t remember whether the Vicar and my uncle finally decided whether Jane Austen was happy in Bath or not, but all in all, it was a day well spent. We finished the afternoon with a cream tea in some tea rooms that the Vicar recommended. Scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream and two or three cups of tea each! Theresa was in charge of the tea pot, and her old spark of busy efficiency returned. We walked back to the car tired but content. It had been a worthwhile day. I believe the Vicar is planning another trip, this time to Wells. We shall soon see.