Wednesday 3 August 2022

A Trip to Bath with The Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 On Friday the 29th July, Members of the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle managed to pick a day between train strikes and were rushing into Bath Spa. Outside the station we met Victoria and Andrew, the two foolhardy guides who’d agreed to give us a special tour of the city with a focus on Samuel Johnson, his friends and connections. 

Our first stop was on the South Parade, originally intended to be part of a hugely ambitious forum, it hadn’t quite come together but was a fine and elegant street in itself. We stopped at the house at the end, a quiet spot where we could hear the ‘pock’ sound of cricket being played in the field the other side of the river Avon. This was the house the Thrales took as their Bath residence, where they played host to Fanny Burney, shortly after she was revealed to be the author of Evelina. Her journal described the packed itinerary of concerts, balls and the occasional dull gathering that had to be endured. Receiving advice from her mentor ‘Daddy’ Crisp, she was told that Bath was ‘the great school of the world’. A little exaggerated perhaps, but Bath really was an intense social network packed into a fairly small town. These connections were the theme of the tour. 

One of her activities was to visit Bath’s Theatre Royal, only a couple of minutes walk away but taken by Hester and Fanny in sedan chairs (Henry Thrale opted out). Samuel Foote had performed at the Theatre Royal but the up-and-coming name when the Thrale party visited was Sarah Siddons. When she left Bath for London, she announced she had three reasons to leave behind her fond audience and chase the big city money, then her children walked on the stage and not a dry eye was left in the house. Towards the end of her life she visited Johnson in Bolt Court. There was nowhere for her to sit, leading Johnson to say ‘Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself.’ He could be quite charming when he wished. There’s a painting of this meeting in Dr Johnson’s House.

Our third stop was where Goldsmith stayed in Bath when he was researching his biography of Beau Nash and Burke later dwelt when he came to take the waters for his health. At this point we were only a few stops in and had seen locations connected with at least six of the books read by the Reading Circle up to this point.

We went to the houses of Hannah Moore and Elizabeth Carter, who were both given chapters in Wits and Wives (and painted by Francis Reynolds, subject of another chapter). Incidentally, Hannah Moore wrote a book called Coelebs in Search of a Wife, which had the subtitle Comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals - needless to say, my copy is in the post.

Just behind the Assembly Halls, there is a street called Alfred Street and in that street a house called Alfred House, which has a little bust of King Alfred on it. It was originally owned by the reverend Thomas Wilson, a man who looked, ‘so decrepit, it’d scarce be a sin to bury him as he is’. He gave the deeds of this house to his close friend (and lover?) Catherine Macaulay, noted historian and republican. It was at one of her gatherings that Johnson suggested the footman should eat with them, to really put her republican principles into action and then remarked, “your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.” She also featured in Doctor of Love, where the Dr James Graham fell in love with her but she eloped with his twenty-two year old younger brother, with the deeds to Alfred House. 

On our way towards the famous Circus and Royal Crescent, we stopped outside eight Gay Street. Here, Hester Thrale-Piozzi lived out her last days, which sounded like a lot of fun. For her eightieth birthday she danced til five in the morning and was remarked for her ‘great elasticity’. Following the death of her beloved Piozzi, she had the friendship, and  was linked romantically (by gossips) to Thomas Conway, an actor whose good looks evoked caws from the tour group when his portrait was shown. It seems that she knew how to grow old.

The tour finished at the Royal Crescent with the choice of two parties. One being held by Elizabeth ‘fidget’ Montague, featuring rational entertainment and good conversation. The other held by Alicia McCartney, also known as Mrs McDevil. This may have been a more wild night but any indiscretions would be gossiped about later. Not that the Montague party would be entirely tame, we were shown a Reynolds print called ‘Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club’, in which the women are brawling. An example of what Victoria proudly called ‘the bluestocking, badass women of Bath’

The tour was a big success, somehow managing to be a ‘greatest hits’ of the books we’ve read throughout the years so far, giving us stories we knew and ones that were new to us, enlivened by well chosen quotes and pictures. We wish to thank Victoria and Andrew. 

Following the tour and a little refreshment, the group broke up to tour No.1 Royal Crescent, home of Irish MP, Henry Sandford or to tour the domestic delights of Herschel Museum of Astronomy. At this point, your humble author went in such of beer and buns - and we all met up at a Pizza Express (naturally) to eat, drink wine and present Jane with a 1929 edition of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne. Thanks to Jane and Julia for organising the trip, and to Melanie for hooking us up with the guides. 

As Catherine Morland says in Northanger Abbey (and possibly paraphrasing Johnson) ‘Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?’

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