Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Anne Takes the Cure: Persuasion and the Spa

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Anne Takes the Cure: Persuasion and the Spa

Article excerpt

"I admire one effect that public places have, namely that of bringing people together who would not otherwise meet. It sometimes also occasions people to meet together so that they cannot separate again for life."

--from a 1792 letter, Gloucestershire Records Office

IN THIS PAPER I would like to compare what was thought and written about the salutary effects of the English spa, particularly Bath, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with what happened in Bath to Jane Austen's characters in the novel Persuasion. Keiko Parker has written about how Austen uses Bath's physical topography in Persuasion to illuminate the novel's social milieu and the hierarchal relationships of its characters. I want to highlight Bath's cultural topography, particularly as it relates to spa culture, and to examine the physical, psychological, and moral effects of the spa upon the characters of Persuasion. My thesis is that the curative effects of Anne Elliot's months in Bath parallel the salutary health benefits claimed by contemporary proponents of the spa. I also argue that Anne's activities in Bath parallel those of the traditional spa regimens prescribed by health gurus of the time.

First, one should appreciate the irony of Austen's last novel seeming to embrace and condone taking--and realizing--the cure at Bath. According to her letters, Austen hated Bath and had no faith in its curative powers. Betty Lowry tells us that Jane and her sister Cassandra "did all the right things" at Bath that most spa patrons did (2). But in a letter to Cassandra written from Bath in June 1799, Austen says, "Edward drinks at the Hetling Pump, is to bathe tomorrow; and try Electricity on Tuesday; he proposed the latter himself to Dr. Fellowes, who made no objection to it, but I fancy we are all unanimous in expecting no advantage from it." This sounds skeptical of Bath's alleged health-giving properties. Jane knew Bath well; she and her parents settled in Bath permanently in 1801. But her lather, then seventy years of age, not only didn't get well, but died there. In 1806, Jane and her mother left Bath for Clifton with what she says were "happy feelings of escape" (Austen, Letters 183).

Austen imbued Anne Elliot, her Persuasion protagonist, with similar sentiments. Like her creator, Anne "disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her" (14). Anne has been to Bath before the novel begins, having spent three years at school there after her mother's death, and she spent another unhappy winter there with Lady Russell, during which she happened "to be not in perfectly good spirits" (14). We learn also that Anne deplores the "littlenesses of a town" like Bath (138), and "dread[s] the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath" (33). When her father moves there, she "persist[s] in a very determined, though very silent, disinclination for Bath" (155), so much so that she catches the view of its buildings "without any wish of seeing them better" (135), and feels her progress through the streets to be "however disagreeable, yet too rapid" (185). Anne enters the city "with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months, and anxiously saying to herself, 'Oh! when shall I leave you again?'" (137).

Yet, despite both the author's and Anne's antipathy, at the end of Persuasion Anne emerges from Bath utterly changed: renewed and healed physically and in spirit. Not only Anne, but other characters have been cured of various maladies by their stay at the spa. Had Austen changed her mind about the benefits of the Bath experience? One poignant observation is that at the time of writing Persuasion, Austen was in a state of declining health that was to end in her death. Perhaps, as previous critics have observed, Anne Elliot's second spring represented a wish fulfillment for Austen at that declining period of her life, not only as it relates to youthfulness and love but also to the efficacy of "taking the waters" at Bath. …

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