Bath is a small gem of a city in the west of England, named after hot springs which exist nowhere else in the British Isles – the other spas are all cold.
I have known the place, and worked there on occasion, for twenty years now, and still it has the capacity to surprise me every time I go back. The locals are friendly and polite, but then one could say this of most provincial English towns. The buildings, made of the yellow and gold local limestone, are beautiful. But more than this, there is something about the atmosphere in Bath that gives one a sense of wellbeing. People have a burning desire to talk. Dropping into the smallest of Bath’s many pubs, the Coeur de Lion, you will almost certainly find yourself included in the conversation there. The Bell on Walcot Street is the same. In fact, entering any of the watering holes across the city is like the conversational equivalent of crossing a river with Heraclitus, you can never step into the same one twice. Some places also provide a full range of newspapers, as if to ensure against pauses in the flow of talk, but it’s really a waste of money: the patrons would talk incessantly if you marooned them on a desert island where the only reading material arrived in bottles. People feel a remarkable compulsion to socialise.
If all this is beginning to sound like a tourist brochure, I am definitely wasting ink, or what used to be ink. Judging by Bath’s visitors, the whole world knows very well what the town has to offer. The streets have been filled with pleasure seekers for centuries. At present, it’s the turn of the Arabs and the Chinese predominantly. In antiquity, it was the Romans who, having discovered with dismay that Britannia was the land of ‘eternal winter’, came here armed with strigils to bathe in the hot springs.
Later, flying in the face of received wisdom, medieval visitors did their ablutions here. And in the eighteenth century, first royalty and then the fashionable classes came, to bathe, to dance and to flirt. Each family’s arrival was welcomed by the bells of the abbey. If they greeted everyone in the same manner now, the bellringers would drop dead by Tuesday.
The entire town, most of which was built after the abbey, is consecrated to the pursuit of fun, and the lead singer of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Huey Morgan, resides in the Royal Crescent. At first this might sound improbable, but it serves as proof that he really is fun-loving.
Stray musicians aside, many more people have got to know about Bath through its literary connections, most notably with Jane Austen, who lived here and has a small museum dedicated to her. She mentions Great Pulteney Street in Chapter Thirteen of Northanger Abbey, along with the unusual superpower of her heroine:
‘The general attended her himself to the street-door, saying everything gallant as they went downstairs, admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing, and making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted. Catherine, delighted by all that had passed, proceeded gaily to Pulteney Street, walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before.’
It is absolutely incumbent upon every young woman who claims to be an avid fan of Jane Austen to emulate Catherine’s elasticity when they come to Bath, preferably all the way down that incredibly grand boulevard.
But I shall come to Pulteney Street in a second; it can tell us a lot more about the town than Austen was letting on. ‘Tis said – if you’ll excuse my archaic turn of phrase – that the novelist was not partial to Bath, having encountered snobbery there perhaps, or on account of her aversion to balls, I don’t know for sure, but she didn’t like it. She could be in a minority of one. Bath continues to enchant most people, and many of the scenes in the wildly popular Bridgerton series (available on Netflix) are set there: the sweep of the Crescent, with Huey himself winking in the background; a couple of old shop fronts; the Palladian splendour of Holburne Museum – all these are glimpsed as the characters take liberties with history in a veritable orgy of anachronisms.
But more of that anon. Jane Austen would have been too late to catch the architect of all this fun, the legendary Beau Nash, as he had fallen into a sad decline and died back in 1762, thirteen years before she was born, but this was the man who, more than anyone before or since – with the possible exception of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, but that’s a whole different story – managed to embody the fun of the place. He was what the Romans would have called its spiritus loci.
Richard ‘Beau’ Nash was known, indeed, as the King of Bath, and his death threw the town into mourning so deep that they splashed out on a lavish funeral and buried the old beau in the abbey. This was quite a surprising display of reverence, given the poor reputation beaus had, among the literati at least. Here is Jonathan Swift’s view of them:
‘Yesterday I ordered the carcase of a beau to be stripped in my presence; when we were all amazed to find so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen: but I plainly perceived at every operation, that the farther we proceeded we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk’ (Tale of a Tub).
Such satirical sneers would not have been welcome that day in Bath, though they were immaterial anyway, as Jonathan Swift had himself died some seventeen years previous. Instead, the deceased ‘King’ was praised by innumerable poets and obituarists, including the novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith, who gave a solemn account of his friend’s virtues and vices. He went into some detail, for example, on the issue of Nash’s gambling habit.
But the gambling was not how Nash made his reputation. That was, of course, the way he dressed. He dared to be different. Instead of the customary white wigs of the time, the Beau’s was black beneath a beaver-trimmed hat worn at a raffish angle, whilst his braided and laced coat was worn open to show off his waistcoat and ruffled shirt. This was an entirely new way of dressing, and only the Beau had the bravado to carry it off. Aside from the clothes, however, Goldsmith is brutally frank in his description of Nash’s appearance:
‘Nature had by no means formed Mr Nash for a Beau Garçon, his person was clumsy, too large and awkward, and his features harsh, strong, and peculiarly irregular, yet even, with those disadvantages, he made love…’
I think we can assume this phrase has the rather chaste meaning of the time…
‘…became a universal admirer of the sex, and was universally admired. He was possessed, at least, of some requisites of a lover. He had assiduity, flattery, fine clothes, and as much wit as the ladies he addressed. Wit, flattery, and fine clothes, he used to say, were enough to debauch a nunnery. But my fair readers of the present day are exempt from this scandal, and it is no matter now, what he said of their grandmothers.’
In short, Nash was a bit of a lady’s man. The quality – at once jolly and garrulous – that Bath retains to this day, was undoubtedly first bequeathed to it by the Beau. It was Nash who built the Assembly Rooms where the characters in Bridgerton meet, and where their Georgian counterparts gathered to dance the minuet, gently advised by the ‘King’ with regard to the niceties of dress. He was bitterly opposed to the wearing of boots, which made men look like they’d just dismounted, and even more so to the carrying of swords:
‘…as they often tore the ladies’ clothes, and frighted them, by sometimes appearing upon trifling occasions. Whenever therefore Nash heard of a challenge given, or accepted, he instantly had both parties arrested.’
The women’s fashion choices were also policed, regardless of the lady’s status:
‘He had the strongest aversion to a white apron, and absolutely excluded all who ventured to come to the assembly dressed in that manner. I have known him on a ball night strip even the duchess of Q, and throw her apron at one of the hinder benches among the ladies’ women; observing, that none but Abigails [presumably, a name associated with servants] appeared in white aprons. This from another would be insult, in him it was considered as a just reprimand, and the good-natured duchess acquiesced in his censure, and with great good sense, and good humour, begged his Majesty's pardon.’
Nash laid out a set of rules, tongue-in-cheek for the most part, but they serve as an indication of the carnival role he played with the men and women of quality and breeding who gave themselves over to his misrule.
‘Rule 10. That all whisperers of lies and scandal, be taken for their authors.’
There was a lot of it about. ‘Several men of no character, old women and young ones, of questioned reputation, are great authors of lies in these places, being of the sect of levellers.’ As kings go, Beau Nash resembled a divinely anointed Stuart, more than he did a levelled Hanoverian. Here is another rule, suggesting the qualities that were most prized in his court:
‘Rule 8. That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.’
One wonders how easily any of the revellers owned up to that definition. Entirely serious or not in his framing of the rules, Nash could be insistent:
‘Even the royal family themselves had not influence enough to make him deviate from any of these rules. The princess Amelia once applying to him for one dance more, after he had given the signal to withdraw, he assured her royal highness, that the established rules of Bath resembled the laws of Lycurgus, which would admit of no alteration, without an utter subversion of all his authority.’
Lycurgus of Sparta was not the only lawmaker Goldsmith is reminded of. He writes this about the way Nash dealt with the trivial tittle-tattle and bitchiness of a milieu one would nowadays expect to encounter in the wings of fashion show:
‘He endeavoured to render scandal odious, by marking it as the result of envy and folly united. Not even Solon…’
(Once again, Goldsmith plucks a respectable name from antiquity and applies it to the foppish master of ceremonies. This must have killed them on the after-dinner circuit)
‘Not even Solon could have enacted a wiser law in such a society as Bath. The gay, the heedless, and the idle, which mostly compose the group of water-drinkers, seldom are at the pains of talking upon universal topics, which require comprehensive thought, or abstract reasoning. The adventures of the little circle of their own acquaintance, or of some names of quality and fashion, make up their whole conversation.’
These denizens of Bath most certainly had no use for the newspapers, one might think, but it turns out reading them was part of their daily routine. No doubt by the evening they had forgotten entirely the newspapers’ contents, such were the distractions of their social whirl. Fun was a calling. One could not let reality intrude upon the serious vocation of diverting oneself, and for this Nash, with his bachelor dedication to the fairer sex and his ever-credulous faith in Lady Luck – like Francis Bacon, another compulsive gambler, he was ‘optimistic about nothing’ – was the best-suited organiser imaginable. He even went off every year to organise the fun in Tunbridge Wells. He hired the musicians, set an example when it came to fashionable attire, resolved and circumvented any signs of discord, and exemplified at all times the benign despotism of the responsible gambler. He also disliked snobbery and was benevolent:
‘…the sums he gave away were immense; and, in old age, when at last grown too poor to give relief, he gave, as the poet has it, all he had, a tear; when incapable of relieving the agonies of the wretched, he attempted to relieve his own by a flood of sorrow.’
There is huge pathos in Goldsmith’s portrait of Nash, based on the way the Beau went from being exalted to regal status, only inexorably to lose his powers.
‘About this time, he arrived at such a pitch of authority, that I really believe Alexander was not greater at Persepolis. The countenance he received from the Prince of Orange, the favour he was in with the Prince of Wales, and the caresses of the nobility, all conspired to lift him to the utmost pitch of vanity. The exultation of a little mind, upon being admitted to the familiarity of the Great is inexpressible. The prince of Orange had made him a present of a very fine snuff-box. Upon this some of the nobility thought it would be proper to give snuff-boxes too…’
This results in a heap of snuff boxes. Nash becomes somewhat snobbish despite himself. Goldsmith notes:
‘I have known him, in London, waste a whole day at a window in the Smyrna coffee-house, in order to receive a bow from the Prince, or the Duchess of Marlborough, as they passed by where he was standing, and he would then look round upon the company for admiration and respect.’
The plaudits keep flowing, however. The reflected glory continues to dazzle:
‘To add to his honours, there was placed a full-length picture of him, in Wiltshire's Ballroom, between the busts of Newton and Pope. It was upon this occasion that the Earl of Chesterfield wrote the following severe but witty epigram:
Immortal Newton never spoke
More truth than here you'll find;
Nor Pope himself e'er penned a joke
Severer on mankind.
This picture placed these busts between,
Gives satire its full strength,
Wisdom and wit are little seen,
But Folly at full length.’
We can see where all this is going. An age that was more merciless in its lampoons than our easily offended ears could bear, would take great pleasure in dethroning its monarch of fun. Hard to know when precisely – perhaps with the introduction of stricter laws against gambling – but the Beau’s career began to follow a familiar trajectory from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the meridian to the nadir, from riches to rags. He soon became both poor and unfashionable.
‘Poor Nash was no longer the gay, thoughtless, idly industrious creature he once was’ laments Goldsmith. ‘Idly industrious’ is a delicious paradox, but maybe one that would be lost on the titans of the industrial age then dawning, even as Nash ran out of road.
‘…he now forgot how to supply new modes of entertainment, and became too rigid, to wind with ease through the vicissitudes of fashion. The evening of his life began to grow cloudy. His fortune was gone, and nothing but poverty lay in prospect. To embitter his hopes, he found himself abandoned by the great, whom he had long endeavoured to serve, and was obliged to fly to those of humbler stations for protection, whom he once affected to despise. He now began to want that charity, which he had never refused to any and to find, that a life of dissipation and gaiety, is ever terminated by misery and regret.’
And the moral of this tale is…
There was not much to look forward to, now, but the steady drift into irrelevance and decline. Like an aging rock star, the Beau became his own tribute act. Still, it was a splendid funeral!
Visiting the scene of his rise and fall now, there is a hint of this irrelevance in the city he did so much to create. Already, by the time of Jane Austen, the buildings must have reeked of another generation’s revels. They used to say that fishermen sitting at dusk on the end of the pier in Brighton could hear the ghostly laughter of Victorian audiences. Even in Austen’s day, there would have been some ghostly laughter from the days when the Beau was organising all the fun.
The faint echo is still there today, but we live in less carefree times. Given its proximity to Bristol and that city’s explicit dependence on slavery, I was tempted to look into the issue of where Bath’s riches came from, and sure enough, there was slavery involved. On the hill behind Bath is a tower built by William Beckford, novelist, a well-known beneficiary of the plantations, but the money used to build Great Pulteney Street and the Palladian pile at the end of it, now housing the Holburne Museum, also derived from that brutal practice. Sir William Pulteney 5th Baronet, according to Wikipedia, ‘was reputedly the wealthiest man in Great Britain. He profited from slave plantations in North America, and invested in building developments in Great Britain, including the Pulteney Bridge and other buildings in Bath, buildings on the sea-front at Weymouth in Dorset, and roads in his native Scotland.’ Ironically, one of the houses in the street named after him carries a plaque commemorating William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, who lived here for a while.
And then there’s the museum: its website admits that ‘some of Sir William Holburne’s inherited wealth derived from plantations in the West Indies, the business of which involved trading in people as well as produce and materials.’
Back in the days of the Beau’s reign, while fun was being had by the bathing, dancing, flirting and gossiping attendants at the court of King Fun, enslaved multitudes were still toiling in the plantations to fund their merriment. But there was little as yet to prick the English conscience. The great campaigns of Wilberforce and the long, agonising battles between the abolitionists and the slave owners would take place in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth, long after Bath’s faux monarch had been laid to rest. Even so, one would like to think there were some guilty consciences among the light-headed revellers. They may even have tried to assuage their guilt, like Colston did in Bristol, by philanthropy at home.
Great Pulteney Street remains, of course, and what a street it is. The pavements alone are majestic in size. The vistas in both directions are stunning. Later on, Napoleon III would stay here, and two years later return to Paris to head the government. The boulevards that he and Baron Haussmann designed for the French capital would be inspired by this magnificent street, thereafter inspiring similar broad thoroughfares throughout Europe. They were beautiful. They also made the suppression of revolutions a lot easier, as the authorities could see for long distances and nip the construction of barricades in the bud.
Now the scenes of Bath have been used as backdrop to the latest period costume hit on Netflix, and one of the distinctive things about Bridgerton is its colourblind casting. Leaving aside the fevered speculations about the historical Queen Charlotte – personally, I am persuaded by Ramsay’s portraits that she did have African heritage – the handsome duke of the story is most definitely black. I need hardly expand here on the anachronisms, given that, in the period the series is set in, slavery flourished. There is a sort of wilful refusal to attempt historical credibility that deserves sneaking admiration. But the good intentions aside, where would this casting of black people as members of the Georgian aristocracy leave an understanding of history’s terrible injustices? Were they just fun-loving criminals, the whole damn lot of them, nicking sugar from their neighbour while hypocritically preaching love for their fellow man? It seems a strange kind of doublethink to try to remind ourselves of the racism and injustices of the past, while portraying it as diverse as our own society, just with a different wardrobe.
But Bridgerton fans are not generally much exercised by fidelity to historical facts. In YouTube videos made by two such fans showing the drama’s locations, both of them managed to refer to Great Pulteney Street as ‘Putney Street’. Maybe, just maybe, one has to have fun – if one is to have fun at all – at the expense of historical accuracy.