Jilly: Georgette Heyer’s Bath

We spent last weekend visiting the beautiful city of Bath. We stayed in a hotel that was once owned by the Duke of Wellington and walked into town to hear a friend’s choir sing in the stunning fifteenth-century Abbey. It seemed as though everywhere I went, I followed in the footsteps of a much-loved Regency romance. Sometimes it was Jane Austen; more often it was Georgette Heyer.

Most of the time it was Black Sheep. It isn’t my all-time favorite Heyer, but I think it has one of the best settings.

By the time of the Regency, Brighton had become the fashionable place to spend the summer and Bath, which had once been the ton’s favorite resort, had become a kind of posh backwater inhabited by invalids and those who couldn’t afford the expense of living in London. Which makes it the perfect choice for Black Sheep.

The heroine, Abigail, who’s in her late 20s, is still single despite being beautiful, well-born, wealthy and intelligent, thanks to her unfashionably independent mind-set. She lives in Bath with Selina, her needy hypochondriac spinster sister, and Fanny, her gorgeous, temperamental heiress niece. Abigail loves and manages both of them, follows the social rounds of Bath society, and expects no more from her life until she meets the hero.

The hero (really more of an anti-hero) is Miles, a disgraced rake who was sent away to India by his family, where he discovered that he had a head for business. Years later he has returned, older and wealthier, but otherwise unchanged. He does exactly what he wants, speaks his mind with unvarnished honesty, and doesn’t give a fig for the rigid social protocol imposed by polite society.

Abigail and Miles cross paths thanks to Stacy, Miles’s nephew, a slippery but superficially charming fortune hunter who’s set his sights on marriage to Fanny. We also learn of a long-ago minor scandal involving Miles and Fanny’s mother, which was hushed up by Abigail’s fanatically respectable family.

Bath is the perfect setting for this story. It’s a beautiful city, all honey-colored stone and sweeping Georgian crescents, but it’s small. Everything is within walking distance. It’s only a few steps from the Pump Room, where Selina goes every day to drink the waters, to the Assembly Rooms, where they spend their evenings dancing. Milsom Street, with its fashionable shops, is just around the corner, and the Abbey, where odious Stacy proposes a runaway marriage to impressionable Fanny, is even nearer. A member of Bath society would have met the same group of people in the same places every day. It’s easy to imagine how comforting Selina found the narrow boundaries of that world, and how claustrophobic it felt to Abigail.

I love the premise—will Abigail save Fanny from the clutches of smooth operator Stacy while scandalizing society and her family by falling for disreputable rough diamond Miles? It’s not much of a spoiler to say of course she will. I think the book’s great strength is in the physical descriptions of Bath and the portrayal of the stifling rules and routines of the gentility, especially for women. There’s also a nice depiction of the tensions between the posh but poor upper classes and the newly wealthy East India traders.

I don’t love Black Sheep as much as some other Heyers because although this is Abigail’s book, when push comes to shove she lacks agency. She’s smart and funny, and she’s brave enough to admit her love for Miles, to him and to her wildly disapproving family, but at the critical juncture she succumbs to emotional blackmail. Fortunately Miles isn’t having any of it. He solves the problems for her and saves the day, but for me that makes the book a whisker less satisfying than Devil’s Cub (heroine shoots the hero with his own pistol), Faro’s Daughter (heroine has the hero kidnapped and locked in a cellar), or Masqueraders (heroine is an escaped Jacobite passing as a man).

I do love the fact that Heyer chose such a great setting for the story, and described it so vividly that the book sprang to life in my memory when I visited the city.

Have you ever visited the setting of a favorite book? How was it for you?

9 thoughts on “Jilly: Georgette Heyer’s Bath

  1. Faro’s Daughter had the hero locked up in the cellar by the heroine? Ooooh, I’m suddenly a little uneasy about something I wrote. I don’t remember ANY details of Faro’s Daughter except I liked it, and would read it again. Maybe I should read it this week.

    Ahem. Now that I’ve got my mild panic attack out of the way, what a gorgeous way to spend a weekend, Jilly! I’ve visited two hot springs towns in the US, and you could feel that they once had money, and those people invested it in the very walls and bricks. I think you’d like Hot Springs, SD — it’s all yellow-stone, and very clean and pretty. As far as I know, nobody has set a major story (let alone ALL the stories that have been set in Bath!) in either Hot Springs or Excelsior Springs, MO. But I do feel both would be great places to do a story. (Did I blog about Excelsior Springs? It has a reputation for being haunted, and the waters were VERY nice.)

    The closest I’ve come to re-visiting a novel I’ve loved is when I’ve gone to New York. So many great stories set in that city that really ring my bell. New York is constantly changing and evolving, so it’s not always easy to find the same places. But still . . . . I still remember being in my teens and being absolutely astounded when I stumbled across Grant’s Tomb, which is the set up for a long-running (and kind of dumb) joke in the US. (Quiz show: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Quizzee: total panic as this MUST be a trick question, or variations of the Holy Fool.) (-: So this is Grant’s Tomb, I thought. It was a little more glittery than I thought it would be — there was a concrete wall inlaid with glass, IIRC.

    What fun! I’ll have to see if I have Black Sheep, too. I think I do . . . . Springtime is a good time for Heyer.

    • I’m sure there are a gajillion stories that have the heroine locking the hero in a cellar if we look hard enough, Michaeline–whatever you wrote, I doubt you have cause to worry. Reading Faro’s Daughter would be fun, though, and Black Sheep.

      Bath was fabulous. The weather was gorgeous and the city is beautiful. We walked until I got blisters, and then kept walking. The Roman hot springs are amazing–beautifully restored and with lots of great exhibits. I do love a hot spring! I’ve had the pleasure in Ecuador and Costa Rica, but never in the US. Hot Springs, SD sounds right up my street, and no, you did not blog about Excelsior Springs. Please do–a haunted hot springs? You can’t keep something that good all to yourself 😉

        • Oh, I remember that post–I just didn’t connect it with a hot springs. The hotel’s website is interesting–they have a page of history and another page about their ghosts, who sound fairly benign (apart from maybe torching the hotel a couple of times).

          The thing that caught my attention was the way the town grew up around the springs. Everyone’s heard of a gold rush. I never heard of a speculative bubble for hot springs, with people scrambling to discover springs and buy land and build properties to take advantage of the healing waters. I think I feel a hot springs plot, or subplot, or scene scratching at my brain 😉

        • When the boys and I did our “Oregon Trail” road trip last summer, we stopped in Soda Springs, Idaho, which ran right along the trail. A town did grow up around the spring, and there used to be (still is?) a place where you can get the water to rid you of various ailments.

          Nowadays, the draw to Soda Springs is the geyser, which is on a timer and goes off every hour. Great if you’re a traveling tourist and want to make sure you see it, but kinda ruins the natural effect. The geyser DOES teach your children about hot water from the earth, though. Kid #2 burned his hand putting it in the hot running water (after I told him not to). At least we hit Soda Springs before Yellowstone. Didn’t have to worry about him climbing into Ol’ Faithful. 🙂

          I’ve yet to try hot springs. It just wasn’t possible with Kid 1 & 2 tagging along, but one of these days I plan to give it a go.

  2. LIke Michaeline, I’ve been to the cities where books I’ve read have been placed. I loved Bath, too, and I also loved how close everything is. I went to the Pump Room and imagined both Jane Austen and her characters and the Heyer characters there before me.

    Once when I was in New York I went to the Algonquin Hotel to have a drink, because Dorothy Parker (and those men, but mostly Dorothy Parker). It’s been remodeled, and it’s a lot more touristy now, doesn’t feel Native-New-York, or didn’t when I was there, but still. I was happy I’d gone. And while I don’t want anyone to think I’m a literary barhop, I went to the Raffles in Singapore (Somerset Maugham! Noel Coward! Rudyard Kipling! Joseph Conrad! Charlie Chaplin!) for a Singapore Sling. That did feel a lot like the Raffles I’d read about. And, hey! I saw Michael Jackson there, waving out of his limo. Worth the trip.

    • We did the Raffles Singapore Sling experience too, Kay, but by the time we went it was disappointingly slick. There was no Michael Jackson or anyone famous, just wall to wall tourists, overpriced cocktails and peanut shells on the floor. Still, it had to be done 😉

  3. Bath! You went to Bath! That was one of my favorite trips! I actually liked Black Sheep quite a bit, the biggest reason being my fascination with Heyer’s ability to go on for PAGES with what would normally seem to be the most mundane dialog, yet I hung on every word, wondering how the heck she’s able to keep things moving forward with so much talking! I’ll have to go back and re-read it for the scenery.

    Just the other day I started (re-) listening to The Unknown Ajax, which I had previously listened to BEFORE venturing to Rye, Lydd, and the other coastal towns I soaked up with Jilly a few years ago (OMG, has it been that long!?!) and could definitely picture in my head the things Hugo saw (church in Rye; the Mermaid Inn, which I’m pretty sure Heyer was referring to based on her description of someone trying to make a turn into the courtyard with a carriage, although she called it something else; the coastline, the church in Lydd, etc.). I loved listening to it again for just that reason.

    I haven’t read Masqueraders, so will add it to my list. I have a few credits to burn on Audible (it’s about the only way I can “read” anything these days). I haven’t read Devil’s Cub in forever. I just started listening to Arabella, which is the very first Heyer I ever picked up. I should have some good “reading” ahead!

    • Yes, we went to Bath and we stayed at Apsley House. It was just as great the second time around. I thought about you!

      I think Heyer does a brilliant job with her settings. They’re not just accurate and vivid, they’re perfect for the storyline, like the stuffy, hypochondriac old maid and her sister in Bath, and Kentish smugglers in Unknown Ajax. I remember our Kentish research trip every time I read that book 🙂

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