Tunbridge Wells and Textured Settings

One of my favorite things about writing JAFF is researching new places for my characters to visit. I have only been to England once, when I was thirteen, and sadly I hadn’t yet fallen in love with Jane Austen. My older sister was doing watercolors of cottages and ecstatically pointing out literary connections to almost every location, and I just didn’t get it. (The following year I discovered Georgette Heyer and THEN I understood.)

We had a great time nonetheless, despite making every quintessential tourist mistake, like getting stuck in a train when we couldn’t find the handle (on the outside of the door), standing on the wrong side of the escalators, and huddling in our car on the ferry to Calais, not realizing there was a veritable shopping center over our heads. I hope someday I can go back and make new mistakes!

Anyway, in my story set during Lizzy’s stay with Charlotte in Kent, and I began to examine the map for options. The whole area is full of connections to Jane Austen and to her stories, but one town that doesn’t appear much in the literature is Tunbridge Wells. Jane Austen’s brother Henry, her friend and sometimes editor, was buried there. The town is glancingly mentioned in Northanger Abbey, but only for vain Miss Thorpe to compare its balls to Bath’s. So, while I’d read a lot about Jane’s life in Tonbridge, here was a charming little town nearby ready to host some beloved characters.

Tunbridge Wells would be getting just a bit fusty by the Regency period. The seaside resorts were more popular, but Lady Catherine, in my opinion, is just the sort of person to appreciate the faded glory of Tunbridge Wells. Its prime was back in the mid-1700s when Beau Nash, by then a well-known older man and leader of the ton, took over with the same ruthless, but effective, management he’d brought to Bath years before. Lady Catherine’s father could very well have been a contemporary of Nash, on the younger side, and I suspect what her father admired her ladyship considered quality for the rest of her life.

Also, Anne de Bourgh was never in good health, and where better to let Anne “take the waters” than Tunbridge Wells? A mere 16 or 17 miles from Rosings Park (which was “near Westerham”), high class, and probably full of Lady Catherine’s contemporaries. And when better to go than when she might reasonably demand Darcy’s escort to the spa town?

And now I had a wonderful location for my story. For walks along the Pantiles, a columned, Georgian walk still popular today, where an old friend might ignorantly conclude that the pretty girl on Darcy’s arm was the reclusive cousin he was finally marrying.

The perfect town for lounges where the gentry sipped cool, iron-rich water in the morning and where Georgiana might meet a portraitist making the rounds of society. The perfect town for rides to nearby ruins, where Lizzy might have a moment alone to clarify a few things with Darcy.

I also allowed Darcy to know Sir John Shelley-Sydney (Percy Byshe Shelley’s uncle) who was restoring an historic estate called Penshurst about six miles away. Here was a chance for Darcy to see Lizzy treated the same way he treated her sisters and to feel all the feelings we want him to have!

In short, I love allowing the settings organically to influence what these great characters might do. One tidbit which caught me off guard was that the original pantiles—the square clay tiles baked in a pan—were mostly replaced by plain flagstones in 1792! Alas, for my pantiles. Not all research makes it into the story, but I decided that was a bit of lost romanticism Lizzy would notice.

If anybody has been to Tunbridge, let me know!

Thanks for reading,

Corrie Garrett

One response to “Tunbridge Wells and Textured Settings”

  1. kimbelle1 Avatar

    I confess I’d never heard of Turnbridge Wells, perhaps when I next write a book I’ll include it in the stops and allow characters to cross paths as one might in a town with a lovely promenade made of columns!

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