In 1799, Jane Austen and her mother accompanied her brother Edward Austen Knight and his wife to Bath where they resided at 13 Queen’s Square for a month, which encompassed part of May and June of that year. Three of Miss Austen’s letters from her month in Bath mention Sydney Gardens, so it can be assumed that she visited the location with some frequency.
For those who are unfamiliar with the gardens and their history, Sydney Gardens is currently the oldest park in Bath. The twelve-acre attraction was planned by Harcourt Masters and opened in 1795 as Bath Vauxhall Gardens. Sydney Hotel, which was built within the gardens, opened to the public a few years later and served as an entry to the pleasure gardens and a venue for events held within the site.
The rear of the hotel was planned well for performances with a semi-circular stage and a wide, covered patio below. In addition, spectators could enjoy events from an arced row of supper boxes projecting from each side of the building. This allowed for the gardens to be used for the popular promenades, galas, and public breakfasts, which we know Jane Austen attended.
Letter from Jane to Cassandra 17 May 1811 –
“There was a very long list of arrivals here in the newspaper yesterday, so that we need not immediately dread absolute solitude; and there is a public breakfast in Sydney Gardens every morning, so that we shall not be wholly starved.”
Three evening galas were held every summer in Sydney Gardens: one on the birthday of George III, one on the birthday of the Prince of Wales, and the last in July for Bath races. These galas were grand parties where guests enjoyed a concert as they dined in the supper boxes to the rear of the hotel. The ground floor of the hotel hosted breakfasts and card playing, while a ballroom on the first floor hosted dancing. In addition, the gardens were decorated with illuminations and according to Miss Austen, the highlight to her evening at the gala was the fireworks.
Letter from Jane to Cassandra – 2 June 1799
“There is to be a grand gala on Tuesday evening in Sydney Gardens, a concert, with illuminations and fireworks. To the latter Elizabeth and I look forward with pleasure, and even the concert will have more than its usual charm for me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.”
Letter from Jane to Cassandra – 11 June 1799
“Last night we were in Sydney Gardens again, as there was a repetition of the gala which went off so ill on the 4th. We did not go till nine, and then were in very good time for the fireworks, which were really beautiful, and surpassing my expectation; the illuminations, too, were very, pretty.”
While the fireworks did seem to strike Jane Austen’s fancy, it is apparent that the music at the gala did not since she was pleased “the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.” Hardly complimentary!
The last quote is the last letter of Jane Austen’s transcribed that I could find from her month in Bath. Her brother, Edward, and his wife had traveled to Bath for him to take the waters, which leads one to believe his course of treatment either worked, or whatever ailment he complained of (Miss Austen mentions gout in one of her letters) resolved itself, since they did not remain longer than the month.
For those who wish to take a step back in time or walk in Jane Austen’s footsteps, Sydney gardens and the Sydney Hotel still exist, though the hotel is now the Holborne Museum of Art.
Transcripts of Jane’s letters: http://pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablet3.html