The Circus

The Circus

Pp 313-318

In the 21st C the leisure business has flourished beyond all expectations. Paying to keep fit and entertained is a mushrooming industry today, one which was foreshadowed by a similar movement in the 18th C when healthy exercise like walking and riding (and, it must be admitted, taking a daily jaunt in a carriage) in order to keep fit was just as important to the fashionista as was the pursuit of entertainment in the form of shopping, gambling and dancing at balls in the Assembly Rooms.

For all these pleasures there was a price to pay in entry fees and similar charges and the Georgian leisure industry developed into a highly important spect of the economy of spa towns like Bath, where the fashionable who did not work for a living had endless hours to fritter away throughout the season.

Contrary to a widely held belief, women in the 18th C were fond of walking and covered what would now be considered impressive distances, tripping along in their cumbersome full-length petticoats and voluminous skirts and dainty footwear. On a country walk six or seven miles was nothing to boast about. Europeans, horrified by the large feet of the average English gentle-woman, blamed this defect on their bizarre love of walking. Then, as now, Bath's flagstoned and cobbled pavements caused many to trip and fall, and caused a lady's feet to burn through her dainty shoes. Some of the Bath belles overcame this problem by having thick cork soles applied to their street shoes.

Shopping in town was one of their greatest pleasures and the most popular time to do so in Bath was in the afternoon although shops often indulged their customers by remaining open until 10 p.m.

Domestic finance was controlled by the man of the house and while women were responsible for day to day marketing, they had to obtain permission before spending on expensive items, while being required to keep a detailed account of all household expenditure, however small the sum involved.

Occasionally a family man living in the depths of the country and visiting London or Bath might be asked to buy personal items for his wife or daughters - a lace collar, perhaps, or some ribbon for trimming a bonnet, but the result was often woefully disappointing. Women much preferred to shop for themselves and for each other.

Sometimes a milliner like Gainsborough's sister was summoned to a visitor's lodgings bringing with her a selection of goods for her customers to try on and choose from at leisure.

The normal life of a woman of means in Bath required living through an endless round of activity from morning until late at night. She might leave the house for an early morning dip in the Roman Baths, return to change, then be off again to breakfast with friends, remaining there until midday, then on to make another visit. Home to change before dining with friends at about 4 p.m., then on to an evening concet in a private house which might begin at 9 p.m. On to the Assembly Rooms to dance or play cards, finally falling into bed, but never before midnight, more often in the early hours of the morning. And this punishing regime applied to young ladies, to their parents, and to their parents, if they had the energy to stay the course.

Women made their formal brief calls in the morning and and again in the late afternoon, following family dinner at home. Invitations to a private home to take tea an hour or two after the hosts had dined were usual, when hosts and earlier guests left the dining room to join those newly arrived. There was no question of being insulted by receiving an invitation of this kind. Indeed, so active was Bath's social life that such an invitation was often more than welcome.