- Literary Walks in Bath: Eleven Excursions in the Company of Eminent Authors by Andrew Swift and Kirsten Elliott
Local history is a cottage industry in Bath, conducted by amateurs in the best sense of that word. Among them are Andrew Swift and Kirsten Elliott, who, as established Bath ciceroni, qualify as public historians. Public history of this type is nowhere more necessary than in places such as Bath, which, before the advent of English Heritage and UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, suffered the depredations of the worst impulses of modernist urban “renewal.” Every Bathonian, it seems, is both an amateur local historian and a gimlet-eyed cultural critic. There is no shortage of delightfully tart observations in this book, especially in the final tour of John Betjeman’s Bath. I am curious as to what these authors’ perspective would be on the protracted and costly effort to restore Bath as a high-end health resort.
Though not academically trained scholars, Swift and Elliott put remarkable effort into expanding Bath’s history beyond chronicling the elite playground that the resort operated as at its height. After all, if contemporary estimates are to be trusted, for every nob who cut a figure in the assembly rooms, there were a dozen visitors like the Penroses, who were obliged to lodge perilously close to Avon Street, Bath’s red-light district. Swift and Elliott choose to open, for example, with a tour of Bath’s coaching inns, to which many of these humbler visitors would have arrived on public coach services costing a few pennies a mile. John Thelwall, the radical organizer who is buried in Bath, is mentioned at length, as is the agitator Henry “Orator” Hunt, who spoke in Bath in 1817. There is an obligatory—and lengthy—“Jane Austen Pilgrimage,” of course, but even that long and well-worn path has surprises in it. Some unexpected divergences treat less well-known writers such as the historian Catherine Macaulay, mentioned in the same breath with Edward Gibbon and David Hume during her life, but forgotten over the course of the next century.
The reader should approach this guide as a series of curated exhibitions, and a book to be perused in situ, certainly on the walks that the authors navigate, but also in the inevitable intervals of travel: the time spent on trains or coaches, in the lounges or breakfast rooms of hotels, or in cafés. Swift and Elliott get off to a slow start, however, as their first two chapters seem to be works in progress, especially as the authors are their own publishers, so that we might legitimately hope to see these sections fleshed out in later editions. A better meta-itinerary would skip ahead to chapter 3, on Tobias Smollett. In this and succeeding chapters, a much [End Page 172] more developed section setting out historical context prefaces a shorter section with a tour itinerary.
I was surprised at the absence of references to the writings of Peter Borsay, as well as to my own work on eighteenth-century Bath (which would set the authors straight, for example, on the changing proprietorship of Bath’s various assembly rooms). Borsay’s work on the urban renaissance of the eighteenth century, focusing as it does on provincial towns, would prove suggestive to the authors, but even more so would his 2004 book on the representation of Bath, particularly with reference to the historical fiction of Georgette Heyer, to whom a chapter is devoted. I was glad to see the benign influence of John Brewer’s Pleasures of the Imagination (1997) evident here and there.
The authors’ chronological focus is after the mid-eighteenth-century tipping point when the resort passed out of fashion and gradually reinvented itself as a retirement community for military and naval officers, clergymen, civil servants, and elites in reduced circumstances. Arguably, Bath’s strongest literary associations were laid down in this period. Dating from the 1760s, Christopher Anstey’s New...