Bath. By Edith Sitwell. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas. $3.50.
Because of its regularity and inconsistency, its unruliness and restraint, its distinction and beauty, Bath is the best epitome of English life in the eighteenth century. London belongs to Elizabeth and Victoria; Bath, to Queen Anne and the Georges. With magic suddenness and completeness it rose at the trumpet call of the neo-classic age; with that age it decayed, and with that age it died, for Bath today, despite its motor-thronged streets and unconceivable motion picture palaces, is the ghost of an eighteenth-century city. Its many hills, set close together, its bridges and squares and parades—wander through these by moonlight and Bath in all its elegant compactness has been laid before you. The undersized public buildings with their Roman facades and the shops and residences of plain, unyielding lines are correctly disposed in semicircles and rectangles and short, crowded rows. Even the Abbey, crowning the scene with its Gothic tower, is idealized into consistency. The dull grey buildings are bright silver, the shadows and the cavities of the streets are black; the modern world is asleep, and the place appears once more that brave, arbitrary pattern of order and perfection that eighteenth-century art expresses always.
Hovering over this scene, reclining on a billowy cloud and surrounded by winged Cupids who support her writing pad and ink pot and arrange the folds of her flowing gown, Miss Edith Sitwell may be pictured—indeed she is extravagantly pictured thus in the frontispiece of her volume, “Bath”— with her pen in her hand and meditation on her countenance. She is evoking ghosts… .
Rightfully first appears Beau Nash, whose struggle into fame, whose golden age and declining years were those of the city itself. We see his arrival, as a penniless gambler, at the gates of Bath; we see his rise, through audacity, tact, and the happy cooperation of time and circumstance, to popularity and position, his autocratic reign as Master of Ceremonies, his neglected old age, and pathetic death. The authoress makes this often told story the framework of her book: Beau Nash’s life, touching as it did the lives of all who visited the city, is the cord on which the incidents, anecdotes, character sketches, and rags of scandal and gossip are strung. Through him we meet again the frequently encountered ghosts of Pope, Gay, Swift, Johnson, Boswell, Walpole, Goldsmith, and a dozen others. We meet less familiar ghosts. There is Captain Philip Thicknesse, discoverer of Gainsborough and according to himself “unfortunately the father of Lord Audley,” There is self-made, hospitable Ralph Allen, Maecenas of his day and model of philanthropic goodness for all time. There is Sally Lunn, the famous cake-maker of Liliput Alley. There is Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, “that impossible woman” whose riches and zeal made her conversion to Methodism at first an annoyance and then a terror to the fashionable world in which she continued to hold sway. Many, many others appear—a dazzling, confusing array—whose claim on the interest of posterity is summarized in a brilliant phrase or a neatly told anecdote.
Without obtruding the fact, “Bath” is a “scholarly” book, in both the good and bad senses of the term. It is accurate and well documented. There are, however, too many extracts from contemporary letters, diaries, biographies, and novels: a good third or more of the book is quotation. There is also much excerpting from later writers. (Miss Sitwell acknowledges, and owes, great debt to Barbeau’s “Life and Letters at Bath in the Eighteenth Century,” to Ashton’s “Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne,” to Peach’s “Historic Houses in Bath,” and to other volumes.) Wealth of material appears to have been a handicap, and much is retold that need not have been retold while some things that would have been new and interesting are unfortunately omitted.
Miss Sitwell’s main contributions are through her thorough and sympathetic understanding of eighteenth-century life and art, her clear but informal style, and her rare talent for combining poetical insight with satirical humor. In the passages where, instead of recording facts, she allows her imagination to play over the subject there is great beauty; the chapter entitled “The Ghosts of a Long Summer Day” has all the grace and sentimental charm of an essay by Austin Dobson. It may be that if she had had more time, her book, like Pascal’s letter, would have been shorter — and more uniformly excellent. But that is perhaps ungenerous criticism of the best book on Bath that has yet appeared for the general reader,