Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Narrative of Place: Malta and Bath

While walking the cobblestoned streets in Vallatta, Malta's capital, a UNESCO heritage site, I unexpectedly found myself imagining Jane Austen meandering down the same streets, breathing  the same Mediterranean breezes, perhaps looking into the same shop windows.

The many steps down to the Grand Harbor in Valletta. 

Little side streets shops showed  prints of  eighteenth century sailing vessels with sails billowing in the Grand Harbor. I could n't help but think with a thrill of Anne Eliot of Persuasion running into Admiral Croft staring into a shop window at a boat print on the streets of Bath. Austen never visited Malta, but the sense of her--and poets of her era who did, such as Byron and Coleridge--was palpable.

Ship prints in a shop window. Admiral Croft, where art thou??

A few weeks later in Bath, also a UNESCO heritage site, under a chillier sky, walking past pale stone eighteenth century buildings and visiting the Assembly rooms, I had a far more difficult time channeling Jane Austen, though she lived in this city for more than four years and set parts of two  novels there.

The Assembly rooms were bombed to smithereens in WWII and rebuilt.

Churches in Bath suffered damage and were repaired.

How, I wondered, did, Valletta, an eighteenth century city  more or less obliterated during World War II that Austen never visited strike me as more authentically "Austenian" than a city she actually lived in?

I decided to do some sleuthing.

I already knew that Malta was the most bombed country during World War II, as the Germans tried to wrest control of this strategic island from the British. The "eighteenth-century" Vallatta we walk through today is a reconstruction of what the city looked like before it was destroyed by bombing in the 1940s.

Valletta in World War II. The Nazis were plagued by bombing runs on Africa originating here. 

 I was surprised to learn that Bath, too, was bombed during World War II. It was targeted in what were called the Baedecker bombings, made in retaliation for British bombing of historic German cities. Bath was targeted precisely because of its tourist appeal and beauty. Three nights of bombing  killed hundreds of people, destroyed 1,200 buildings and damaged 19,000. Included in the destruction were the Assembly rooms we today visit as if they were authentic eighteenth century rooms. The East window of the Bath Cathedral was also destroyed, as were many Georgian homes and buildings. Contemporary 1940s photographs show huge piles of rubble in Bath.

The Bath we see to today has been restored. 

Like Valletta, Bath was rebuilt.

Neither city is authentically eighteenth century. Both cities have undergone intensive reconstruction. So why does Valletta tell a more convincing than Bath?

The answer lies in the decisions city planners made. Malta used the advantage of two land masses separated by a quick (seven minute) ferry ride across a bay to create two culturally distinct areas, Valletta and Sliema. Sliema is a densely packed "cosmopolitan" area of high rise apartments, Euro-chic restaurants, and chain store shopping. (I ate at a Marks and Spencers.) Valletta, in contrast, is a low-rise area of eighteenth-century stone buildings and cobblestoned streets. Wide areas of the downtown are closed to auto traffic--and you need a permit to bring a car in at all.

Further, visitors can still walk down wide flights of stone stairs to the harbor, just like the stairs Byron bitterly complained about having to climb with his lame foot. The skyline is dominated by Church domes, and the major (and side) street are filled  Malta-style restaurants, cafes, and shops. Only the slightest number of chain stores have made their way in and have done so discreetly.

How much bombing damage did St. John's Baroque excess in Vallatta endure?

Bath, in contrast, amalgamates it eighteenth century Georgian city with a modern cosmopolitan city. Car traffic runs beside cobbled pedestrian malls. Pubs and Euro-chic restaurants stand side by side. Eighteenth century townhouses reside beside modern chain furniture stores.

If "UNESCO heritage  sites tell stories--are fictions--than Valletta/Sliema offers a clearer and more compelling narrative than Bath. If I can more easily channel Austen in Valletta, this is because Valletta, with its lack of cars and consistently eighteenth century look, seems more like a city Austen would have known.

Could Bath have off-shored the cosmopolitan parts of its city to a separate section, perhaps on the other side of the Avon? If it had done so, it could have left the area around the Roman Baths, the cathedral and the rebuilt Assembly rooms car free and populated with locally owned British pubs, tearooms, and shops. This would have created a more coherent narrative and sense of Jane Austen's Bath. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of eighteenth century and twenty-first century city leads to a place that while lovely, is not really one or the other.

All of this has left me ruminating on how much of Europe, which we visit  for "authentic" encounters with the historic, (despite much written lately about Disneyfication) has been rebuilt, and how much that matters. What is authenticity? Isn't rebuilding a building, a cathedral, a city block or a square as it was making a strong gesture towards preserving the past?  Doesn't recreating, in fact, recreate? Of course, we can never really get to the experience of the past, especially the distant past. I stayed in a medieval city, Mdina, in Malta that has withstood  earthquakes and was not a target of World War II bombing, It still has fourteenth century buildings, narrow streets, and is on a hill surrounded by high walls, but health regulations alone ensure we don't occupy it the way medieval residents did. Yet, when you walk Mdina, you walk the streets that were 800 years in the past. This is different from a recreation of an Eiffel Tower put down in a swamp a continent away from the source.

Whatever the issues of authenticity, cities do best when they tell a coherent story--and I was delighted beyond measure to be able to channel the Regency world of Austen, Coleridge, and Byron in this Mediterranean setting. It's never a problem to have an unexpected encounter with Jane: who, I might mention, was quite tall and wearing a high-waisted white muslin gown.


  1. Interesting blog. When I saw the pictures of boats in the shop window, I was also reminded of Persuasion. Perhaps Bath does not evoke Austen as she did not like it. But the fact that many of the buildings in Bath had to be reconstructed after the war makes me think of the Notre Dame cathedral. Its reconstruction will not detract from a sense of authenticity, suggesting just how much authenticity is also a construct.

    More on Malta, please! It sounds fascinating.

  2. Elaine,
    Glad to hear from you! I am planning more on Malta, but first will be blogging about Virginia Woolf (one entry)! I hope you enjoyed Mexico.

  3. And yes yes on Notre Dame--I had just completed this blog as Notre Dame burned down, so I though it was quite timely!