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Bath In Literature

By George Saintsbury

An article published in "The Book of Bath": Written for the 93rd AGM of the BMA, July 1925

The above is a large subject for a small paper; nor is its mere largeness the only peril attending the handling of it. For it may be taken in many different ways, the best of which is hard to hit on; and sometimes when one is writing or thinking of it, the question presents itself insidiously, "Are you not muddling 'Bath in Literature` with 'Literature in Bath ' ? However, those who have asked me to write this article have graciously " given me my head " as to the course and conduct of it, so I shall confine it to what actually has been in that head about the subject, without any elaborate research or reading up, for a long time before I came to live here with perhaps one unavoidable addition.

Bath, then, in Literature starts for me, and has long started with a passage in our oldest letters; doubtfully certain in its application perhaps, but far too good to be given up without the positive reasons which do not yet exist, or at least are not known. This is the so called "Ruin," the finest to some tastes of our very oldest Old English or Anglo Saxon poems. It is not merely a fragment, but what one may call an internally dilapidated fragment; and no names are mentioned in it. But with the undoubted facts that Bath was a Roman station that all Roman stations were ruined more or less by the time this piece could have been written; and that the hot springs mentioned in it exist in Bath to this day, and do not exist in any other suitable locality the identification of poem and place is scarcely rash. Indeed, as such identifications go, it is almost what classical scholars are wont to describe as “certissima." And with at least an equal amount of certainty, it "starts" Bath in Literature on a much more exalted plane than any legends about Bladud or any discussions about Sul. For the poem, doubly a ruin as it is in subject and form, is not merely a good one, but has elements at least of greatness.

One had thought, or at least hoped, that the largely increased study in English Universities, and even schools, of older English literature, had as a consequence, increased the knowledge of things like this, but its latest editor, Miss Kershaw, seems to be doubtful. The "Ruin," unfortunately, is a ruin in two senses as just said, for though the " mickle English book of various things wrought lay wise," which Bishop Leofric gave to Exeter Cathedral nearly nine hundred years ago, is still as a whole quite safe there, somebody at some time amused himself by dropping hot ashes (not even tobacco ashes) upon two parts of it, with ghastly results of defacement. To make things worse in one way, but better in another, it has some unique words in it; and wholly for the least, it shows what is rare in Old English poems of anything like its age attempts or chance medleys at that greatest grace of English verse rhyme. Worked out word by word it is rather a puzzle, though ingenious folk have even succeeded in identifying the red tiles and plaster, as well as other features of the existing Roman Baths. But the best thing about the piece is the general impression which its dilapidated details cannot hide, and which I may, I hope, be allowed to represent in words of my own, and written some thirty years ago in "A Short History of English Literature." “Perhaps the deepest and noblest of all emotions, not merely personal and sensual the feeling for the things that are long enough ago finds expression, and worthy expression, as the poet looks on the masonry shattered by fate, the crumbling mortar gemmed by hoarfrost; I as he imagines the once heights reduced to ruinous heaps, the warriors who sat there the hot baths boiling in their lake like cistern, the busy market-silent, the merry mead halls overwhelmed by the fiat of destiny."

I have always thought since (some time even before I wrote what has just been quoted) I read this first, that we have here what may in more than the slang sense, be called the bones of a great poem, and even some of the flesh of one. But with its greatness there is undoubtedly mixed (as happens very often with great poems) sadness. There is no sadness except for very punctilious or very sensitive folk, in the next great appearance of Bath in literature next with the trifling interval of at least some half millennium in writing and probably nearer a whole millennium in subject. The punctilious may object to Chaucer's immortal “Wife of Bath" that her morality was, despite her own ingenious defences of it, very dubious; and the sensitive may add that by her own confession she was a fearful plague to most of her numerous husbands. But let us hope (with some dubitation) that her pilgrimage made up for her earlier peccadilloes; and if we may believe her (which it would be rude not to do), all her husbands admitted considerable easements to her tyranny. Speaking with that exactness which is incumbent on the scholar, one is bound to warn readers that, though in titles and citation she is always called the Wife "of Bath," the poet in his text only says that she was "of Beside Bath," purposely, I think, if wickedly (and Chaucer was nothing if not wicked in the milder sense) leaving to his commentators the business of deciding where this "beside" was. Depend upon it; he knew the way of commentators well enough. I believe some relying on the "cloth making" of which she had such mastery, and of which she wore from cover-chief to hose such beautiful specimens have pitched upon Bradford on Avon. But never mind that, "Wife of Bath" she is till the day when there shall be no more books, and no more memory in those who have read them.

And perhaps, though there may be more poetical passages in the “Canterbury Tales” than those which deal with her, there are none which exhibit better that wonderful "comprehensiveness" in a certain way, which Dryden rightly attributes to Chaucer in what is itself for its age a wonderfully comprehensive criticism of him, prefacing his own paraphrase of the "Wife's Tale." The notice of her in the general Prologue, with a few hints of something further, is almost purely pictorial; nowhere is that extraordinary skill in word painting, which has tempted so many actual painters, better shown indeed hardly anywhere does it make actual illustration more superfluous. Then there is the very long, very naughty, and immensely amusing particular Prologue to her own Tale. It is so long that her companions remark on its continuance; and so naughty that Dryden himself, who was certainly not squeamish, didn't date to paraphrase it ; though its intensely natural and dramatic properties make it hardly offensive at all certainly far less offensive than many things much less "improper" in substance and elaborately decent in language. And there is the Tale itself, which, if not absolutely constructed with a view to Mrs. Grundy's approval, has nothing that need offend anyone else, and though satirical in a pretty high degree, is almost "pretty" in another sense.

Now for a time everybody who could read in England (certainly not quite the majority) read Chaucer himself. Then after a brief period of obscuration, everybody who read English poetry read Dryden's version of this particular Tale, and Dryden's popularity had hardly entered upon its own period of obscuration when a return was made to Chaucer himself. Since that, more and more people have become acquainted with him every decade and almost every year. And so there have been only two, and those short, gaps since 1400, during which any English reader with the slightest taste for literature could fail to connect the name of Bath at least with the name of a great poet, and with some more or less accurate idea of one of not the least characteristic of his works.

As almost everybody who wrote or read English literature during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries knew Chaucer, this excellent dame (one cannot exactly call her a "lady," but "dame" was the style in which she was actually addressed) may be said to have kept Bath in literature as well as in memory, during all that time. But the actual time did not contribute much to the keeping. Indeed, it did not contribute very much to literature itself. Neither does Bath figure at all largely in the great Elizabethan library, whether that be limited strictly to the Queen's reign or extended as usual later. It was bad luck, doubtless, that Shakespeare. Though he had a great deal to do with the northern end of Gloucestershire, seems never to have come to the southern.

Drayton was essentially a Warwickshire man, and notice or no notice of any place in such an omnium gatherum the “Polyolbion " would hardly require insertion or comment in such a composition as this which I am now endeavouring to put together; nor could Spenser's "Wondrous Bath," mentioned currently in the " Pageant of the Rivers," receive more notice. He was a northerner in one sense, a Londoner in another. In fact, London began to be too much of a magnet for everybody, wherever they were born; and though the mild genius of Samuel Daniel allowed itself to be born and also to die at Beckington, which is not so very far away, I cannot remember that he ever mentions our city. In the troubles of the mid seventeenth, the Pyrrhic victory of Lansdown may have attracted threnodies on the relatively numerous and disastrous deaths of some of the very best of the King's younger champions; and the medicinal virtues of the place were beginning to be scientifically (more or less) celebrated. But of anything in serious literature like the "Ruin” of anything in comic, satiric, and miscellaneous literature like the three memorials of the " Wife of Bath " if anything at all survives, it does not at the moment survive in my memory.

One has made what one could of a trifling thousand years or so. But it was not till England settled down at the Restoration that Bath really came into its own as regards literature, and literature found its own in Bath. Only eight years afterwards, in June 1868, Mr. Pepys took that merry journey with his wife and poor "Deb" Willet (soon to be the occasion of terrible things) and the ever present Will Hewer and the mysterious Betty Turner, which led them by the rather roundabout way of Huntingdon, Bedford, Oxford ("a very sweet place "), Hungerford, Salisbury, and it would seem Warminster, (the name is not given the route seems to identify “a town" with Warminster) to Bath; going no further than to Bristol and staying a short time at Bath on the way back to judgment and Mrs. Pepys's red hot tongs. She and Deb "mightily joyed" at coming into Somersetshire, for they were both Somerset girls; and Samuel himself found the Baths, though not so large as he expected, "pleasant" when he went out that evening, tired as he was, with his landlord to inspect them. They all went to the Cross Bath next morning at four o'clock, that they might bathe before "company" came. But company, much company, 44 very fine ladies, "did come, and it was all" pretty enough, "though finical Mr. Pepys doubted whether it was" clean, to go into the water, so many bodies together. Apparently the wicked practice of the Bath chairmen, in extorting extra hire before they would carry you home, did not trouble him; and after two hours in the water (which the doctors would hardly allow now) he went home and to bed in the correct way, and "sweated" another hour. After which the indefatigable creatures, at eleven, went to Bristol and saw Deb's family (who would hardly have been so kind to Mr. Pepys if they had known everything) and drank Bristol Milk (which is not Punch, as certain Pelagians do vainly talk, but glorified sherry) and came back to Bath at ten o'clock and spent the whole of the next day there. It was Sunday, and one deeply regrets to hear that "in the great church a vain pragmatical fellow preached a ridiculous affected sermon."

Perhaps these trifles may seem to occupy disproportionate space in a small room, but it is always difficult to tear oneself away from Pepys when one gets to him, and he dispenses one from troubling about his contemporaries. His usual companion, Evelyn (who would not exactly have liked to be called his companion) did, I believe, go to Bath, but I have not got him at hand now. Dryden himself probably knew it; for he certainly made one long stay, and perhaps some shorter ones, at his father-in law, Lord Suffolk and Berkshire's place, CharIton Park, not many miles off. But I do not think he ever mentions it, except in connection with Chaucer. His enemy, Shadwell, who, badly as he wrote, and "dull" as he certainly was, was no mean copyist of manners, was pre engaged with eastern watering places, Epsom and Bury St. Edmunds. And besides, one must hurry to the eighteenth century.

If a century and a city could be regarded as regiments and much more difficult presentments have been effected by ingenious logicians there can be little doubt that Bath might take the title of "The Eighteenth Century's Own," and the eighteenth century, or a very large part of it, as far as its literature is concerned, that of "Bath's Own." The union was not at first so close as it was later; we do not think of the strictly Queen Anne men, Swift, Addison, and Steele, even of Gay and Pope as much connected with Bath, though Gay's beloved and Swift's epistolary flirted with Duchess of Queensberry, Prior's "Kitty" was one of the persons who, rebel to all others, submitted to Nash's benevolent tyranny. It is in the days of the Georges, especially the Second and Third, that "The Marriage of Literature and Bath" as the Middle Ages would have put it, becomes closest ; and it is .a fact of curious and perhaps occult significance, that the last and brightest of the children of that marriage, the work of Miss Austen, was produced wholly before the death of George the Third himself, the extension of the fecundity into the nineteenth century balancing its less prolific and intimate character in the two first decades of the eighteenth.

"The Shapes" of this alliance, to use a striking phrase of Walt Whitman's, "arise" in almost bewildering multitude and vividness. With Richardson, indeed, Bath did not agree, I agree with my regretted friend Mr. Austin Dobson, that it was much too lively for him. But his great enemy, or rather the infinitely greater novelist whom he thought his enemy, but who was much too generous to be so, Fielding, was almost a Bathonian, by no means merely in consequence of his friendship with Ralph Allen. Horace Walpole did not like Bath, and was not much in it; but I have always been pretty sure that this was a result of one of those quaint and rather affected filial pieties of his, because two of Bath's very greatest patrons, Pulteney and Chesterfield, had been his father's enemies. But Pulteney and Chesterfield themselves make a host between them; though the speeches of the one are not extant and the letters and "characters" of the other have long been unjustly undervalued. And though I do not know that the delightful verses that they jointly wrote on the more delightful Miss Lepel were written at Bath, they ought to have been, for they breathe at least one lighter part of the very spirit of the place in humour and rhythm:

Had I Hanover, Bremen and Verden,

And likewise the Duchy of Zell,

I would part with them all for a farthing,

To my dear Molly Lepel."

I have already elsewhere requested the reader to remember: (1) that a great stir was being made about " Bremen and Verden " at the time; (2) that Verden is to be pronounced like Cherwell and Derby; (3) that " farden " was then not in. the least a vulgarism, but the correct sound of the coin. These things observed, the little thing makes a carillon of the most delectable. And they always rang the bells at Bath when distinguished visitors came in those days.

I cannot remember, or even imagine, that Gray had much if anything to do with Bath, though Miss Speed might have attracted him if she had been there; and though Goldsmith wrote of the “Life of Nash," his own life was too much occupied with drudgery and wafting the hire thereof beforehand in London. But Smollett, whether he did or did not (I believe there is some dispute about this) regularly but unsuccessfully practise here in his earlier days, gave in his latest and in "Humphrey Clinker" one of the liveliest, if not the most favourable (for though not quite so much here as elsewhere he was always a grumbler) of the contemporary sketches of its heyday in prose. For verse one must of course go chiefly to the once famous, and still in a fashion remembered, if not read, "New Bath Guide." It is still worth reading, and will amuse its readers, though the amusement is sometimes rather broader than it need be. But if Anstey sinned somewhat in this way, did not Polly Lawrence, the "Pump Room Naiad," draw other verses, decidedly elegant and perfectly clean, from such an otherwise far from clean and very inelegantly "crazy" personage as John Hall Stevenson? To readers of Boswell, Johnson's visit in 1776 with the Thrales (a visit which, through an audacious "fish" for an invitation, Bozzy shared, paying for the hospitality by recording an unfavourable remark of the Doctor's on his hostess) is familiar. But the most noteworthy thing in it does not directly concern Bath itself, being the excursion to Bristol to inquire about Chatterton, with Johnson's characteristically rough but as characteristically generous and sound judgment of the unlucky "whelp" of genius who had foolishly insulted him. The connections, however, with Bath of Mrs. Thrale herself, Thralia dulcis, the "bright" (or is it "light") "papilionaceous creature" as Carlyle so happily calls her, were very much more frequent, and lasted very much longer, sometimes bringing with them those of Fanny Burney. Meanwhile one of its very greatest glories had been conferred on it, independently of other relations of his with it, by Sheridan in The Rivals. I unblushingly prefer this delightful thing not merely to Sheridan's other plays, but to everything else in eighteenth century drama, except She Stoops to Conquer. For The School for Scandal is after all of the School of Congreve; and it is at least doubtful whether The Critic would have been written but for The Rehearsal. The Rivals is The Rivals and suggests nothing else. Even Falkland and Julia are true to their time and place.

(I must beg pardon for this explosion, but one must explode occasionally.)

The brightest days of Bath were by no means closed at 1800 and what I have called "Literature in Bath" that is to say its connection as a place of visit or residence with literary persons went on almost indefinitely. But as an actual scene of a contribution to great literature itself it figured almost finally (for the famous episode in "Pickwick" is after all an episode merely), though with extraordinary brightness, in "Northanger Abbey" at the beginning, and "Persuasion" towards the end, of the too brief career of their other " inimitable " author. To say anything critical about these here would be as perilous as it would be unnecessary. But it is safe as well as relevant to dwell a little on the "extraordinary" way in which the local is in a fashion incorporated with the story. By some curious fate, while I know England at large and the Weft in particular, at least as well as most people I was never in Bath till I was nearly sixty, though I had been a devotee of "Jane" before I was sixteen. But I have somehow always seen the place as the background of the two novels or the greater parts of them, and the first time that, just twenty years ago, I stood on Beechen Cliff, I was tempted, useless as I knew it to be, to look each side of me for " those two very nice young ladies," Miss Catherine Morland and Miss Eleanor Tilney.

A slight return to the history of the visit of the Four Friends though, as the Moses Pickwick who first excited Sam's wrath and then his alarm about the state of his master's spirits, was actually a Bathonian, the whole book in a way belongs to Bath and we must, as they say, draw to a close. Exactly how Mr.Winkle managed to execute his remarkable feat of agility in running round the Crescent, I have never been able to understand. He could no doubt have done it in the Circus. But anyone who makes oversights of this sort a cause of serious quarrels with Dickens, deserves to have a new verse of the "Three Jolly Post boys" extemporized for his benefit. And in other respects there is hardly a better part of that unique book, of which some freethinking devotees have said that if everything else of its author, except "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations," were unknown, he would stand even higher than he does now.

It will probably be best, after the good old pantomime manner, to finish here with this blaze of fireworks. Almost exactly when Mr. Pickwick went, Landor came, or rather came back, and his coming occasioned the bodily presence of Dickens himself and not a few other sommites of nineteenth century literature. Indeed, in the middle twenty years or thereabouts of the century, he, as he had done earlier, produced here some of his own great works, and committed some of his worst, or at least most foolish acts. For Landor was never really bad; even when he threw the cook out of the window at Florence, where that fortunate menial found something more spoilable than Bath stone, but much softer. And one might add many other things and persons newer and older, for scarcely a year passes without something being added to the literary history of Bath, and in the very last twelve months the pleasant " Woodforde Diary" gave us fresh associations.

But I should not like to conclude without at least a mention of the latest possession, if he be also the latest loss, of Bath in the department of literature, my late friend, Mr. Frederic Harrison. One can go farther even than Landor, at whose death Mr.Harrison was almost entering middle age, to connect him chronologically with our succession. For if not in Bath, Mr. Harrison was, as Queen Berengaria says, "somewhere else," a doubtless sturdy little boy of seven or eight, when Mr. Pickwick's disgraceful conduct at whist sent Miss Bolo, home "in a flood of tears and a sedan chair," one of the finest rhetorical double duties ever put on a preposition. And when he died, he was unquestionably the doyen of English literature, though not in the least a "Ruin." But all things and persons, whether already "Ruins" or not, must come to an end, as well as make a beginning, and so must this article.

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