Small Pleasures: the Jane Austen Festival costume parade

If you squint a little and mentally photoshop out the traffic signs, the cars and some of the more modern shop fronts, it’s not hard to imagine Bath as it was when Jane Austen visited it. The city she describes in her books is still here, its streets largely unaltered. Balls are still held in the Assembly Rooms, tea is still served at the Pump Rooms by the Abbey, people still shop in Milsom Street and the grand houses the rich used during their Season in Bath still stand. The only thing missing is the people that bring Austen’s novels alive.

Last Saturday gave me a rare opportunity to see Bath’s streets populated with people wearing clothes Jane Austen would have recognised.

The 2021 Jane Austen Festival was a ten-day event celebrating Jane Austen in Bath. Amongst other things, it offered people the opportunity to wear period costumes, take part in a parade through the centre of Bath, take dancing lessons and attend a ball in the Pump rooms.

My wife suggested that we should go and take a look at the parade, which started at the Holburne Museum, next to Sydney Gardens – which were pleasure gardens in Austen’s day, up Great Pultney Street, which is filled with Georgian Town Houses, all built at the same time by the same architect, and on to Pultney Bridge.

It was a nice day (meaning it wasn’t raining) and watching a parade felt like a Sunday thing to do. It was outdoors and people wouldn’t have to stand too close together, so COVID risks could be managed so we went.

I’d expected a couple of dozen people to be strutting their stuff and thought that everything would be over in a few minutes. I was surprised and impressed by the large number of people in the parade. Seeing them all together was almost overwhelming.

Here are a few photographs that give an impression of the size and diversity of the parade.

One of the things I liked most was how friendly the whole thing felt. This wasn’t the look-at-me-and-feel-my-wealth-and-power feel that you get from the Venice Carnival or the bacchanalian we’re-gonna-cut-loose feel that you get from Germanic Karneval of Fastnacht. This was a delightfully English, isn’t-this-fun event that gave people the opportunity to channel their favourite Austin characters while going for a walk with friends and family and of course their dogs.

Here are some photographs that I hope show some of the energy and spirit in the parade.

I also loved the diversity of people taking part and the attention that they paid to their costumes. Take a look at these photographs and cast them in your favourite Austen novel.

The parade was a great thing to watch and seemed like a fun thing to participate in. I admire the enthusiasm and friendliness of everyone taking part.

Later in the week, I was shopping on Milsom Street and saw people walking by in ones and twos in full costume. No one blinked. No one even took pictures. They just smiled and nodded and the people walked on as if they were on their way to meet with Sir Walter Elliot.

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