A concatenation of circumstances led me to the following piece, which I had written a number of years ago. I smiled when I re-read it, and as it has the advantages of being finished, as opposed to the piece I was writing for today, which is decidely not finished, I decided to post it.
We were two Jane Austen heroines in search of a better background for our goodbyes than the poky hotel in Watford. What could we do except head for Bath?
Watford to Bath meant connecting through Paddington. Unbeknownst to us, it was the weekend of the Reading Music Festival and Paddington was swarming with people, most of whom carried bed rolls and packs and looked as if they were waiting for the 1969 train to Woodstock – which was strange, as I was fairly sure none of them were born then. Squeezing into the train with the thousands of tattooed, pierced, dyed, spiked and grunged young people, we thought we’d somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up in a Hogarth engraving, instead of the Austen novel we were expecting. In spite of the initial shock, it turned out to be a very congenial and entertaining journey, if somewhat lacking in air and room to move; we felt Hogarth would have been right at home and made a few sketches.
The minute we walked into our hotel on South Parade in Bath, however, Hogarth evaporated as, simultaneously, we both morphed into Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey about whom Austen says: “She was come to be happy and she felt happy already.”
The hotel was made up of several 18th century townhouses, faced a wide-flagged pavement and was within easy walking distance of both the train station and all the places any self-respecting heroine needs to visit (the Circus, the Crescent, the Baths, the Pump Room, the Jane Austen Center and the Costume Museum.) Our room on the first floor was beautifully appointed with flowery chintzes and unlike so many places we’d stayed that week, the large sash window actually opened, allowing the curtains to billow and flutter in the most satisfactory, regency-novel kind of way.
Unlike Jane Austen who generally disliked Bath, we found it all just as we had hoped: the beautifully proportioned stone buildings, the winding streets, the shops, the cafes, the pots of flowers. Even the traffic was just perfect. One morning with no break in the steady flow of cars on George Street, we thought we would never be able to get to the other side when the British army came to our rescue. Two jeeps ground to a halt and the soldiers waved us across. At that moment one of us completely understood why Lydia Bennett swooned after every solider she saw, while the other was one with Mrs. Bennett, who “liked a red coat well enough five and twenty years ago,” only this time it was olive fatigues that caused the fluttering heart.
On our wanderings about the city, we found people-watching as interesting as Jane Austen did. Besides the Austen-ophiles, we identified another large group of visitors – the Reluctant Husbands. One day we spotted the perfect example of both having tea in the Pump Rooms. She – dressed in pale pink linen and a straw hat – clearly an Emma as she had the air of liking her own way very much. He – lounging in rumpled shorts, a tee shirt and running shoes – completely 21st century and counting the points his appearance in this place was getting him. Joining them at the table was an even more Reluctant and Completely Mortified Teenaged Son looking as if he would much prefer the Reading Music Festival and trying desperately not to be associated with the Embarrassing People who happened to be feeding him.
Our Austen novel came to an end and The Daughter returned to Watford to begin a year’s exchange at the University of Hertfordshire, while I returned to an office in Massachusetts – she, a heroine in search of an adventure and me, a mother who once again found herself sympathizing with Mrs. Bennett that nothing was so sad as parting from one’s family.
On a June 1 some years later, our novel acquired an epilogue when the young heroine married a tall and handsome British gentleman, which, for those who know us well, was the only possible outcome. It has, alas, also made us proficient at good byes.