Ask AustenBlog: Bath Toys


We heard from Gentle Reader Twila, who asks:

Hello — last summer I conducted my personal ultimate Jane Austen project and re-read the books and watched all the movie and television adaptations and related films I could get my hands on. (I’m sorry to say most of them are pret-ty bad, but that’s another story.) I have a lingering question which I hope someone can answer…

What is bugging me is… in one of the television adaptations of one of the novels — I think it was Northanger Abbey, and probably whichever version was racier — the ladies are taking a dip in the Roman baths. They are wearing some long muslin gowns, and there are strings around their necks attached to some little platters which float in front of them. What in the world are they, and what are they for??

We think that was the earlier adaptation, actually, which was less racy and rather weirder than the later adaptation. 🙂 The bath scene was shot on a specially-constructed set, by the bye, not in the actual Roman baths, which, we understand from our visit there, are not fit for actual bathing due to algae growth in the water. When the Romans actually used the baths, there was a large roof overhead, which kept out the sun and prevented the growth of green stuff. We were just amazed that the plumbing still worked after two thousand years, especially since the plumbing in our former situation was going pear-shaped after barely a hundred years.

But to Twila’s question: we thought other Gentle Readers might have the same question, so asked if we could share her e-mail and answer it on the blog.

Vic at Jane Austen’s World wrote a post on the hot baths that quotes a book providing an explanation for the floaties:

In the eighteenth century pride of place went to the Pump Room, where warm mineral water was sold by the glass, and the King’s Bath. This giant communal cistern was right under the windows of the Pump Room, open to the gaze of all. Patients sat in the bath with hot water right up to their necks. Men were enveloped in brown linen suits. Women wore petticoats and jackets of the same material. They sat side by side in a hot, faintly sulphurous mist.

Limp cotton handkerchiefs caught the sweat which dribbled down the bathers’ faces; afterwards they were tucked away in the brims of patients’ hats. Lightweight bowls of copper floated perilously on the water. Inside them vials of oil and sweet smelling pomanders bobbed up and down. On a cold morning the bathers in their caps and hats looked to the curious onlookers pressed against the glass above them like perspiring mushrooms rising into the thick gaseous air (p 35-36).

There are also some screencaps from the bathing scene in the NA adaptation as well for those unfamiliar with it. Thanks as always to Vic!

And we love this non-canonical line from Mr. Thorpe, green-eyed over the all-conquering Tilneys: “Are we to be supplanted, Pussy?”

9 thoughts on “Ask AustenBlog: Bath Toys

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Mags! Mr Thorpe’s line reminds me of the time my Dutch aunt left to return to Holland. At La Guardia airport, my uncle shouted repeatedly to my aunt, who was leaving, “ Goodbye, Pussy, goodbye my dear Pussy”, having no idea what effect his leavetaking would have on others. My brother and I, who were teens at the time, fell over each other with laughter.


    • Mags

      He definitely says “Pussy.” But remember that in the UK, the term does not have the, er, gynecological meaning it has in the U.S. However, there is a reason why Fanny Harville’s name was changed to Phoebe for the 1995 Persuasion adaptation. 🙂 (And why U.S. tourists are encouraged to refer to a certain accessory as a “waist pack” rather than the term more common in the U.S., “fanny pack.”)

      Though Mrs. Slocombe always made all those jokes about her pussy(cat)…hmmm.

      Jonathan Coy is so delightfully creepy in that adaptation. It’s hard to believe he grew up to be Lt. Bracegirdle.


  2. Reeba

    Here’s what I found out from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755). JA is said to have referred to it.

    pursy – it is pronounced ‘poussif’ (a French word) it is used as a derogatory term for something shortbreathed/fat

    Then there is the word ‘puss’ but there is no word ‘pussy’

    Puss – means; the fondling name of a cat or a sportsman’s term for a hare.

    I still think the word isn’t pussy, simply because it doesn’t sound of those times – and not because of its other meaning. 😀


    • Mags

      Reeba, I suspect they were not concerned with period-appropriate word choice in the writing of that script. As I said in the original post, it’s a non-canonical line–it’s not in the book.

      “Pussy” in this case is a generic term of endearment, like “honey” or “sweetie.” That is what he is saying. Take my word for it. And it’s fine. It’s not an insult nor is it a reference to womanly parts. 🙂


  3. Mandy N

    Hard to bleieve Georgian people visited spas for health. Bath waters were vile and smelly; ladies held those pomanders to their noses. Imagine John Thorpe popping up in the Bath trying to sell you a horse !
    I must say, I think NA1’s John Thorpe was almost exactly the burlesque charecter JA intended him to be.


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