one of my favourite authors growing up was jane austen. and i read or rather devoured all her books, atleast a couple of times each. i still remember the order: pride & prejudice, emma, persuasion, mansfield park, northanger abbey, sense & sensibility… i didn’t like sense & sensibility. i have watched the BBC production of pride & prejudice twice, watched the movie emma once (not seen the new one with keira knightley i think…) i liked her style and stories and for a wide-eyed 12-year-old these books were the ultimate romance, they told me tales of another time, of another people, of traditions and cultures further from me than the famous 5. but with characters more real than the candy-sweet kids in enid blyton. elizabeth was my ultimate heroine – she was confident, sure and not subversive to any man, modern in that sense!
and when i was done with jane, i read all of georgette’s book (georgette heyer). started by seeing a couple at my grandmom’s place in chennai, asked my mum if i could read it, got hooked on and then persisted and bought the entire series (except for the historical ones). both these authors wrote mills & boons-esque romances set in the regency period, with balls, dances, dress-gowns, finishing schools, and they took me swaying along…
this was my fairytale world!
while i’ve never wished i was born in that period or in england. i did wish to see it as it is… i did want to swish around in-between those characters, walk those roads, live in those houses and experience the grandeur that jane & georgette brought alive in their books. (many have accused jane austen of only telling the tales of the rich-almost-nobility, and not of the sordid poverty that also roamed the streets, died of the cold and probably had few such extravagant and vain joys as cotillion dances!)
my first visit to london a couple of years ago left me a little disappointed. it’s like how foreigners imagine bumping into tigers, elephants and snake charmers on the streets of india… similarly, i imagined london in vintage gear, those horse driven carriages, women wearing hats and mittens as they walked along, parasols to protect their skin from the sun, people walking around and having these quiet, polite conversations, in the midst of the 21st century of course! but london was too contemporary, with some gorgeous gothic structures stuck in the middle! the vibe was not that of the 19th century that i sought! i visited covent garden, walked around hyde park and relived some of the pages – where all the characters went for evening strolls, where spirited heroines drove their two-perched phantons. these were only hints of that past, just faint echoes that didn’t build the real picture for me. maybe it’s because it felt too big and too unwieldy to be the closed, closeted world of a JA or GH novel!
on an off-chance, i decided to go to bath. bath features a fair bit in all these books…. there is so much said about the water and air at bath… that it can cure any ailment. everyone in those novels flocked there, or rather it was always the place the heroine would retreat to hide away from the hero….
bath was something else!
walking down the streets, somehow i felt more of JA & GH to be hovering around me and trying to breathe in some of that air with me. the ballroom at the assembly halls was cosy, the roads were intimate, the signposts seemed to reek of another time, and everything seemed to revolve around the abbey. maybe, i just visited the ‘touristy’ parts of bath, but that bath seemed more JA & GH’s times than any bits of the london i visited. i could breathe the stories alive… though sadly eliza bennet never visited bath!!!