Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Jane Austen Centre Tour: literature as lifestyle

The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, is squeezed into a Georgian house and spread over two floors with the third floor, up top, given over to a tea room. At the front door a middle-aged man in period costume, sideburns bristling, hovered around, occasionally waving at the passing tourist buses trying to drum up business. I could see how his job could easily become a soul destroying one if he invested too much of himself in it. I slipped past, got my ticket from a lady, also in period costume, who ushered me up onto the 1st floor.

There I waited for fifteen minutes until the next introduction to the centre was due to start. At first alone and then with a small but growing group, I watched a promotional video for the Jane Austen Festival, which takes place annually in Bath and features literary events, dances, walks, concerts and dinners. Much of it appeared to have next to nothing to do with literature except for the fact that Austen wrote about these things. There is, I realised, a big market for fans to enter into the world of the novels that they hold dear: they've already bought the books, the next step is workshops in the dances that Austen may have enjoyed.

A young woman entered and then ushered us into the next room where she gave us an introduction to the life and work of Jane Austen. I have to confess to not having read cover to cover any of her novels; I received a truly awful education in English literature that pretty much poisoned the entire English cannon for me. So, In order to get better acquainted with Austin's oeuvre, I have just watched an adaptation of Northanger Abbey. It looked like a good quality Mills & Boon story. Indeed, taking a look at the Mills & Boon website, like you do, I noticed that they have a 24-book Regency Society series of brassiere busters. I know that TV adaptations are almost always going to have a dumbing down effect on literature and I also see it was a vastly different thing for Austen to write novels back then than it is for the M&B stable of authors to pump out their slim tomes destined to fill charity shops. Still, it is ultimately girl meets boy stuff. That said, even though I was through with it by about 20 minutes and was then watching it mainly for the Bath angle, I did hang on till the bitter, or should I say saccharine sweet end, when they got married, had a baby and lived happily ever after. You can't leave things like that dangling in the air.

We were shown a picture of Austin's family home in Chawton, Hampshire which is today the Jane Austen's House Museum. I got the distinct impression that it was by far the larger and more prestigious establishment and that this smaller Bath centre, existed because the city is a major tourist destination and the setting of two of her novels. The Bath connection is, then, not wholly tenuous, even if it takes the form of a museum primarily because of tourist money. I noticed some much more opportunistic literary acquisition still in the shape of Birmingham's claim to some of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle glory on the basis of a few months' work there spread over 3 years. Portsmouth has their angle on his time there, Edinburgh can claim his birthplace, London has 221b Baker street and Crowborough, his home in Sussex, is in with a punt too. There's no reason why there should only be one museum to these figures, but in the case of Jane Austen and Bath, I felt it superfluous in that they didn't really have anything very original to show, the original objects are held elsewhere. The relationship between the author and city was, here, not that of the city showing off its finest sons and daughters but rather the city using its relations with famous figures to show off itself. Bath is in the enviable position of having been a society resort to which practically all of the 18th Century canonical English authors would have paid a visit. This opens up the possibility of many more museums where this one came from.

The introductory talk lasted no more than 20 minutes and we were then led downstairs into the exhibition space and left to it. There were displays like the one which work the Austen in Bath angle; both Austin the writer and the lives of her literary creations.

Following this was a video that explained it a whole lot more. There were some nice shots of the architecture and a spectral Georgian lady making her way along the streets. It looked a bit like a ghost walk but I suppose the idea is that the presence of Austen remains tangible in the city today. It was striking that the Bath of this video looked almost exactly like the Bath of the walking tours. No Primark and absolutely no Poundland.

An actor who had starred in one of the adaptations of her novels a few years back gave the authoritative narrative that strung the video together. It featured many clips from film adaptations and the whole package was politely short so that it didn't try the visitors' patience. If there are multiple levels and nuances to her work, as I'm guessing their must be, they were not evinced here. The centre, when taken as a whole, seemed to celebrate Jane Austin and the Bath lifestyle that she led and wrote about, while leaving her actual literary works more or less untouched.

Moving on, I came to a wardrobe of clothes and here I am playing at being the Georgian gentleman. Dressing up in period costume was more popular with the ladies: I was the only man attired this and the choice of men's clothes was far more limited. Looking at the picture now, I think I look a bit stranded in the 21st century, not quite able to make that leap back. I do have some pictures from my dim past working on TV period dramas, however, and in these I am a little more fully makeover for the 18th and 19th centuries. Thinking back to those costume drama experiences, I seem to remember the programmes almost always found themselves caught in the dilemma that the audience and actors didn't actually want to go too far down the line of historical accuracy. If it's done too thoroughly, the actors get stuck with weird haircuts and facial hair that interferes with their other work and they have to learn accents and mannerisms that today's audience struggle to understand. So that is how it was in the centre too: we all remained stranded in our presents, the costumed staff in the centre and tourists dressing up for Georgian dinners and dances.

This is a picture that was taken a few weeks ago when I visited the centre for the unveiling of their latest exhibit. I only had the time that day to see the final exhibit, this 'lifelike' waxwork model of Jane Austen based upon a single sketch and written descriptions of her. There are now 'no photography' signs up around it. I'm trying to understand the impulse to stop photography since taking pictures has become so much a part of what tourists do. No 1 Royal Crescent also has a picture ban as does Denis Severs House in London, which I reviewed a few months ago. There is an article in The Telegraph supporting a photo ban, but reading through the comments it is interesting to see how normal people are more inclined to allow photography, as indeed am I. While I think there is a problem of some people paying too much attention to artworks through the lens of their camera and not looking closely enough when lacking a screen, I believe educating people to look rather than banning this principal form of image distribution is the answer. The Jane Austen Centre banning just this single exhibit seems odd and it could have been done for two reasons, as far as I can see. The first was to protect the sculpture from flash photography. I don't know how it was made and if it is sensitive to flash, so maybe there's something there. The second reason is simply to protect postcard sales. This Jane Austen lookalike sculpture and the dressing up option in the previous room are practically the only two photo worthy moments in a visit to the centre. Having many pictures like the above double portrait in circulation brings more attention to the centre and Jane Austen more generally. A similar debate takes place in the performance field and I am of the opinion that it is better to embrace the camera as this then leaves records that provoke memories and spark conversations.

And then, spat back onto the street, I saw this: blokish humour co-existing with Georgian make believe. Faced with such a contrast I see how there is a space for a Jane Austen Centre. Bath is a divided city and the lines are only starting to become a bit more visible. If it is possible to find tours that can make these evident is a challenge, but I'm out every day with a new tour, so lets see.

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