Peter Borsay. The Image of Georgian Bath 1700-2000. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xv + 430 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-820265-3.
Reviewed by Susan E. Whyman (Princeton, New Jersey)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2001)
Towns, Heritage, and History
Towns, Heritage, and History
Peter Borsay's new book, like his previous The English Urban Renaissance (1989), examines town life and high cultural revival after a period of decline. We are greeted by his same admirable desire to look outward from history to larger interdisciplinary questions and concerns. Yet the historical landscape of Borsay's mind has both expanded and changed. This is not an "orthodox local history," as one might have supposed, but "an exploration of the image of Georgian Bath" (p. 1) from its genesis in the early eighteenth century to its renaissance at the end of the twentieth century. This study shows how each generation re-crafted and used its own image of Bath in a cyclical process that continues today.
Borsay readily admits that in the changing milieu of the late-twentieth century, "a shift occurred in my intellectual priorities" (p. 8). He now wishes to explore "the whole phenomenon of ^pastness'" (p. 8) and the place of representation in this inquiry. Indeed, Borsay sounds a clarion call to historians, to "focus on representation rather than reality" (p. 5). The influence of post-modernism is evident, as Borsay wonders if there was ever "an objective Bath, over and above the subjective perceptions generated among the inhabitants and visitors." If there was any reality, he concludes, it was in the "images themselves rather than in what purportedly lay behind them" (p. 5).
Borsay's shift in method brings in its train a similar, new attitude to sources. Not only does he broaden their scope to include radio programmes, posters, cigarette cards, pageants, and stained glass, he criticizes the historian's over-emphasis upon manuscript archives. "The whole thrust of this study," he notes, "has been that in exploring historical images, there is no fundamental distinction between primary and secondary texts. All accounts of Georgian Bath, whether of the eighteenth century or today, are primary sources" (p. 245). Paying little attention to manuscripts, his "dominant" texts include guidebooks, histories, and publicity over three centuries, along with lesser-used "derivative" texts (p. 246). He creatively subjects his sources to traditional uses such as counting pages, illustrations, tourist itineraries, and occupation of celebrities to provide evidence for his arguments.
Borsay erects a carefully crafted structure with major points highlighted in each chapter, reminiscent of a balanced Palladian faade. In Part One: Genesis and History, Borsay offers a foundational portrait of eighteenth-century Bath, though it runs "counter to the whole strategy of this book" to offer purely factual information. "Without some practical understanding," he admits, the reader will have difficulty "negotiating the text" (p. 11). He then shows how Victorian, Edwardian, inter-war, modern, and post-modern generations swung back and forth as they self-fashioned Bath's image in accordance with their own times. In each era, Borsay finds a plurality of contradictory representations clustered around issues of health, environment, society, consumption, morality and order. This undulating, cyclical trajectory is repeated in every ensuing chapter, giving weight to his arguments, but resulting in unavoidable repetition. Part Two: Form and Media considers the formal content of the image as expressed in biography and architecture and distributed through various media or sources. Part Three considers the Georgian image as a useful entity grounded in human needs. We see how it had tremendous practical impact on commercial life and contributed to notions of status, power and nationalism. Its psychological role is also treated as it helped visitors and residents to explore their own values and culture.
But it is the concluding chapter, which integrates notions of towns, heritage, and history, that makes the most valuable contribution to our understanding of urban history. It is the thoughtful result of years of wide reading, deep thinking, and even passion. This section teems with thought-provoking ideas, and is recommended for all types of historians. Borsay believes the Bath case study shows us that interest in the past is a universal phenomenon (p. 5), through which each generation "defines itself by rejecting the dominant values and culture of the previous one." This conflict is part of a larger debate in "each society, community, and individual, over how to weigh the influence of the past against that of the present" (p. 384). Borsay sees Bath's twentieth-century urban renaissance as an attempt to integrate past and present. He believes this process is necessary to establish one's identity (p. 387) and is "fundamental to human well-being" (p. 378).
Borsay takes a tolerant view of the ambivalences of the heritage movement, its links to the political right, and the debate over its "social, gender, and racial priorities, focusing upon Southern England and the high-class white male." But one wonders whether academe has really found a "more tolerant, less purist perspective" that emphasizes "the positive points of the heritage phenomenon" (p. 377). Borsay ends by calling upon historians to recognize ^the continuing power of myth and popular history in contemporary society" (p. 390) and to integrate them into their work.
Borsay has remained true to his book's purpose and has developed a lucid argument. He has creatively brought the relationships of town, heritage, and history to center stage, at a time when the countryside/urban model is being debated in Britain. For this reviewer, however, his emphasis on representation strikes an odd note, for as he himself admits, urban historians have used it productively in books and in conferences throughout the 1990s (p. 7).
By juxtaposing representation against reality so starkly, he finds himself in a difficult position, for though his finger is firmly in the dyke, "the real" keeps flooding in. His need to map and outline the "facts" in the introduction indicates that image alone is not enough. We also have a human need for some form of empirical foundation, upon which we can base our imaginative arches, crescents, and historical understandings. I found myself longing to know more about the wonderful images he creates. For example, who were Ralph Allen, Beau Nash and John Wood and how did they live their lives? Jane Austen was elevated to "mythical status" in Bath, but though her views of the town were "ambivalent" (p. 129), we are not told what they were. Borsay's criticism of the privileging of manuscripts is a valid and useful point. But his "dominant" texts are also privileged, and his refusal to make distinctions among sources is like leaving us without a guide when we face thousands of "hits" on the internet. His enthusiasm for his cause is contagious, but one does not want to throw out the baby with the bath-water.
After these caveats, we are left with a thought-provoking study that accomplishes Borsay's purpose with a style and panache that the Georgians would appreciate. The themes it raises should interest all historians who want to look at texts in new ways and see complexities in multiple narratives. Borsay's book reminds us that writers who are grounded in historical archives, techniques, and evidence face the challenge of integrating representation and reality.
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Susan E. Whyman. Review of Borsay, Peter, The Image of Georgian Bath 1700-2000.
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