Monday, January 15, 2007

Bath, Part Two: A Walk with Jane Austen

Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805, although she had visited relatives in the city on earlier occasions. Her parents had been married in Bath, at St. Swithin's church, and her father decided to retire there in 1801. Jane Austen was not particularly happy living in Bath. She missed her familiar Hampshire countryside, and was too distracted by the noise and social whirl of Bath to do any writing: her first three novels were written at Steventon, and her last three at Chawton. But Bath is important as a setting for two of the novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Bath was, in 1801, a modern city. The Royal Crescent, remember, was completed in 1774, only a year before Jane Austen's birth. Austen herself complained of the "white glare" of the new buildings. In chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take a walk up to Beechen Cliff, a large hill overlooking the city. Clara Louise read the chapter to us in the car on the drive down from Kenilworth, and on Sunday morning we set out to recreate the walk itself:
Beechen Cliff as seen from just above Queen Square. In 1799, Jane Austen lived on Queen Square, about where the blue door is in the corner of the building. At the beginning of chapter 14, Austen writes: "They determined on walking around Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath." She may have had such an "opening" as this in mind.
Our walk took us across the Pulteney Bridge, designed by Robert Adam and built in 1773. Shops line the bridge on both sides. The river is the Avon.
The view from Beechen Cliff. Bath Abbey is behind Will's head. Unfortunately, the picturesque effect is slightly spoiled by a modern parking garage in the foreground. It was here that Henry Tilney instructed Catherine Morland on the picturesque: "He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape." We learn from Henry also that the rare blue sky doesn't contribute to a picturesque effect. One wants dramatic clouds.
After the walk, we were ready for tea, which we enjoyed in the Jane Austen Room of Sally Lunn's House, home of the world-famous Sally Lunn bun. The house itself is the oldest house in Bath (c. 1482), with foundations dating to Roman times. Its kitchen was once part of the monastery complex connected to Bath Abbey. Sally Lunn was supposedly a French immigrant in the 17th century who invented a new kind of large tea bun, a distant relative of the brioche. The authentic Bath recipe is a closely guarded secret, but Sally Lunns became popular in American Southern cooking, and the recipe here is adapted from Bill Neal's Southern Cooking (1985):

1 cup milk

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon

1/4 cup sugar

1 package active dry yeast

3 eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

Combine the milk, 1/2 cup butter, and sugar in a saucepan. Gently heat until the butter and sugar are dissolved in the milk. Let cool to lukewarm, then stir in the yeast and let it sit until little bubbles appear. Stir in the eggs.

Put the mixture in a large bowl and blend in the flour and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough becomes elastic and shiny, beating 400 strokes. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume. Beat the dough down, counting 50 strokes, and set aside for 15 minutes.

Generously butter a tube pan with the remaining butter. Beat the dough another 50 strokes and put it evenly in the tube pan. Cover again and let rise until doubled.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bake in the middle of the oven until the bread is risen and golden in color, about 40 minutes.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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