Sophia, or, What Happens in Bath – Anne Knight

‘Girls, I have had a letter from my dear friend, Mrs Parsons,’ said Mrs Thornton to her daughters. ‘She has invited us to join her in Bath.’ ‘Oh, I should dearly love to go to Bath,’ said Harriet. At the grand and wizened age of twenty, it was, of course, a gross injustice that she had never been further than a county away. ‘Do you mean to accept, mama?’ asked Sophia. ‘I should have every notion to, if I could but persuade your father to agree.’ ‘Nonsense,’ said Mr Thornton. ‘Once your mother’s mind is made up, wild horses could not drag her from her course.’ ‘You jest, Mr Thornton. Were I to go without you, I should have replied immediately, but as you will insist on not going, we must all stay at home. I daresay the air would have been very good for your constitution. However, once you are opposed to something, my dear, wild horses could not drag you from your course.’ ‘I see no reason to suffer the inconvenience of a long and uncomfortable journey to Bath for nothing more than the air. It will be just the same as it is here, and Tranton has the advantage on Bath of being infinitely more tranquil.’ ‘Oh, you are impossible sometimes.

Think of our girls. Tranquillity is good, to be sure, but at their age, a little excitement is in order.’ ‘Oh do let us go papa. I assure you I shall rot if I am forced to stay here all year,’ said Harriet. ‘How can you be sure you shall not rot in Bath?’ ‘Oh, I intend to be too busy running to balls to have time for anything else.’ ‘Come, papa, the journey might be long, but I am sure you will enjoy yourself once we are there,’ said Sophia. She too was anxious to visit Bath, having heard much on the subject from Mrs Parsons’ daughter, Eliza, who also happened to be her particular friend. While by no means lacking the grace of a lady, Sophia had grown up under the tutelage of a kind, yet boisterous older brother, and consequently had a mind less devoted to balls and dancing than her elder sister. She found herself much more suited to music and plays and felt that in Bath, she would be best situated to enjoy their delights. Each with her own purpose, both girls continued to be so relentless that where wild horses, and indeed, even his wife failed, the gentle, earnest and persistent entreaties of his two daughters succeeded in warming Mr Thornton to the idea.

Mr Thornton, as his private nature dictated, much preferred solitary pursuits. As a young man, he had danced at balls until he had secured himself a wife, after which the deed had served its purpose. At his current stage and situation in life, he seldom set foot in a ballroom, and indeed, not at all, if he could help it. He had cultivated a rather extensive library, which afforded him an immense amount of pleasure and that, along with his dog and the solace of a long walk in the country was enough for him to spend his days amiably. Mrs Thornton was very pleased that on this occasion, Mr Thornton had not persisted in his obstinacy. He had not been half as stubborn as a young man. In fact, he had been most agreeable. However, with his advancing years, he had grown fixed in his ways and so often she found it difficult to get him to do anything in which he had not already been apt to engage. Before her husband could think of changing his mind, Mrs Thornton replied to her dear friend with an eager hand and intimated that they should be delighted to join her. Therefore, it was decided: they would all go to Bath.

On the day of their departure, such a bustle erupted about the house. Sophia was very much in danger of leaving behind her bonnet and Mr Thornton feared Harriet had packed far too much yet she could not be persuaded to part with more than two of her gowns. Mrs Thornton suffered some dismay to think they had not left much room for the purchases she was sure she would make, much to the alarm of Mr Thornton who, aware of his wife’s love of pretty trinkets and indifference on financial matters, felt more and more certain a stay in Bath would ruin, rather than improve his constitution – and his pocket. By the time they finally set off, and left their home, Winslow House, behind, it was far too late for any of them to entertain hopes of doing anything upon their arrival in Bath besides having supper and going to bed. Thus Harriet and Sophia found themselves obliged to wait until the following day to start their adventure. Chapter II Mrs Thornton hoped a trip to Bath might throw her daughters in the way of some eligible gentlemen. She had a certain degree of amiability about her, and while not above being enthralled by the trappings of fashion and social opinion, could even be described as almost sensible on occasion. Where her daughters were concerned, she reserved the right to a little private vanity. Both were handsome and she enjoyed being informed thus, particularly where it pertained to her eldest. Harriet bore something of a likeness to her mother and therefore, praising the daughter must of course mean flattery to the mother.

It was quite natural in her own quiet musings that Mrs Thornton should own her to be the prettier of the two. Sophia looked a little like both her parents, which gave her the general appearance of resembling neither. The eyes and mouth were decidedly her mother’s but her other features, her nose, her complexion, her height, belonged all to the father, though there were a few features here and there whose origins were harder to determine. The Thorntons also had a boy, William. Currently, he was away at Oxford and his absence was keenly felt by Sophia who much enjoyed his company. In him, she found a companion who was very much like herself. In her younger days, they had been apt to scramble up trees and collect birds’ eggs from their nests and engage in all the general sorts of mischief within the reach of lively young minds. Mrs Thornton had often been cross with both and almost always in the way of declaring to Mr Thornton that Sophia ought to have been born a boy while lamenting to herself that she was not more like Harriet in both temperament and appearance. However, divided from her brother by school, Sophia began to apply herself to drawing, reading, playing the pianoforte and, much like her father, walking in the garden when the weather was fine. Thereafter, only occasionally, and then, always in secret, would she climb a tree to get at an apple, or observe the hatchlings in their nests.

Chapter III On the Thorntons’ first day in Bath, Mrs Parsons insisted on showing them all the best spots. She prided herself on being the eyes and ears of the city with the seasoned knowledge of one who had been there as long as a whole week. Not an incident escaped her that she had neither witnessed herself nor learnt from a reliable network of hearsay. She was without any real malice, which endeared her to Mrs Thornton, but she was the unfortunate victim of an active mind, which must always be engaged, and attentions incapable of remaining in one place for very long. Perhaps owing to her affable nature, she found herself in possession of a large acquaintance and loved no activity more than talking of them to whomever would be quiet long enough to listen. This great privilege often fell to her husband, Mr Parsons, who had the benefit of hearing of them every day. However, much was lost to him, for she scarce saw a subject through to the end before starting on another. Even if gently coaxed back to the first, she was wont to wander again. The Parsons had a son, Thomas, besides Eliza. He was a tall young man, not above condescension, who possessed a natural dislike of anything frivolous or fanciful or pertaining to the interests of his sister.

Eliza Parsons paid little heed to her older brother’s whims and got on very well with him through teasing him a good deal more than was necessary. Cooped up as she had been with Thomas for many months together since her birth, she was glad of a change of scenery and was very happy to see Sophia when the Thorntons called on them. ‘I am so glad you have come,’ she said. ‘I have only had Thomas to talk to and he will insist on being stupid about every subject that does not have something to do with politics.’ ‘And you insist on being stupid about anything to do with politics,’ said Thomas, alerted to their conversation after hearing his name mentioned. ‘Though I do not hold it against you, like you do my ignorance on your subjects. After all, the female mind has no concept of politics.’ ‘Nonsense!’ cried Eliza. ‘I have a concept of politics. I have a concept that it is very dull.

’ ‘You prove my point exactly,’ Thomas said. ‘Careful, brother. It would be well with you not to confuse indifference with ignorance.’ said Eliza archly. ‘Come, Sophia. There is no need to stay and be insulted by someone who is determined to be disagreeable.’ Sophia allowed herself to be led away. ‘You see why I am so desirous of your company,’ Eliza said after they had moved away from Thomas. ‘Well, now, you have it,’ said Sophia, laughing. ‘And I was desirous of yours too.

’ ‘But now you are finally here, my mother is very eager to show you Bath.’ Mrs Parsons took her friend to the pump room, and while the latter wrote their names in the book, the former looked about her restlessly, trying to discover among the general mass of people some acquaintance or other to greet and introduce to the Thorntons. Harriet thought it all very well, but the place she was most eager to visit was Milsom Street and she was glad when eventually, they left. They had not advanced many steps outside, however, when Mrs Parsons gave a delighted cry. ‘Oh look,’ said she, ‘there are the Greenwoods. We met them at the theatre last Friday, did we not, dear?’ ‘Indeed we did,’ said Mr Parsons. ‘And we were most surprised. As it turns out, Mr Greenwood is a friend of Mr Parsons, though the two have not seen each other in nigh on ten years. What a happy coincidence that we are all in Bath at the same time. Mrs Greenwood is so gracious and elegant and the Miss Greenwoods are most fine girls.

I daresay they are around the same age as Harriet and Sophia, are they not?’ ‘I should think so,’ said Mr Parsons. ‘The Greenwoods have another daughter, quite married, and a son, though neither is in Bath at present. What was the name of the Greenwoods’ son, dear? George or Frederick or –’ ‘Henry, I believe.’ ‘Henry! Of course. I imagine he must be a very handsome young man too. But it would be very well for you to be acquainted with the Miss Greenwoods. Their names I remember quite clearly, Emily and Augusta. Very charming young girls.’ Harriet put her arm through Sophia’s. ‘I should have liked to catch a glimpse of Henry,’ she said in a quiet, mischievous tone that none but Sophia could hear.

‘I am not surprised,’ said her sister. She knew Harriet’s eye to be very often trained on some young man or other, and her thoughts, yet more so. ‘If the father is the stick by which to measure the son, I have a notion he shall be very handsome indeed.’ Mrs Parsons led her party in the direction of her new acquaintance. ‘Mrs Parsons,’ exclaimed Mrs Greenwood, ‘how wonderful it is to see you again. Was I not just saying how lovely it would be to call on our new acquaintance?’ ‘Yes mama,’ said one of the Miss Greenwoods. The Thorntons were quickly introduced. Both were eager to express the usual civilities and observances on the weather as are owed upon first forming an acquaintance where no other common interests are initially apparent. Mr Greenwood was most amiable and spoke with an unaffected ease, which drew Mr Thornton away from his usual reticence. Mrs Greenwood too made a valiant effort at speech but in a moment of weakness, succumbed to the gross error of pausing for breath just long enough for Mrs Parsons to seize the reigns of conversation.

With the absence of a Mrs Parsons among them, the young people however, appeared to fare much better. Emily had a mild gentleness of character, in stark contrast to the frank and forthright tones of her younger sister. Harriet was perfectly charming, and while Sophia was shy and spoke little for most of their first meeting, she managed by degrees to allow little snippets of her natural good nature to come through, so that by the end of it, they could all profess to be very delighted with one another. ‘Is it not lovely that we are meeting like this?’ said Miss Greenwood. ‘Oh yes, to be sure,’ said Harriet. ‘And I do not doubt that before very long, we shall all be good friends.’ Neither side parted without the promise of calling on the other at a later date. The Miss Greenwoods expressed an eagerness to see Harriet and Sophia at the ball on the following day, a sentiment also felt by the Thornton sisters. Harriet hoped that when next they met the Greenwoods, Henry might also be numbered among their party. Chapter IV Preparing for her first ball in Bath proved the most difficult task Harriet had yet faced in all her twenty years.

‘I cannot decide between my gold cross or mama’s pearl necklace,’ said she, not without a little frustration. ‘Which do you think I ought to choose?’ ‘Surely either shall suffice.’ said Sophia. Harriet sighed. ‘I do wish you would take this seriously. This is not one of the balls in Tranton. Is it so awful to desire to look one’s best?’ ‘Then you ought to wear mama’s necklace.’ ‘Are you sure? Perhaps I should, but I do love my cross. I wore it to my very first ball and now we are attending our first ball in Bath, it seems so apt to wear it.’ ‘Then perhaps you should.

’ ‘Yes, but do you not think mama’s necklace looks very well with my dress?’ Harriet deliberated on her choice a few moments more, but after deciding on her mother’s necklace once and for all, her spirits lifted and she could think and talk of nothing but the ball. ‘I am much looking forward to dancing tonight,’ she said. ‘What if tonight is the night I meet my husband? What if tonight is the night you meet yours?’ Sophia, however, was not altogether certain she wished to marry. For her, the appeal was simply not apparent. She danced at balls when the occasion arose, but there was never a single young man in the room to whom she wished to be joined in matrimony. ‘You know I do not intend to marry,’ she said. ‘Oh, but you must!’ cried Harriet. ‘It would be my greatest pleasure to see you settled well in life. Then, we two shall exchange correspondence back and forth on the subject of our husbands and our children and dogs and you must come and stay sometimes, and we shall visit you. I would not have it any other way.

’ Sophia laughed at her sister’s fanciful musings. ‘You sound as though you are married already, or at least very close to it.’ ‘After tonight, I hope to be a good deal closer.’ ‘Indeed, if your object is Thomas.’ ‘Insufferable creature!’ ‘You may say so, but I recall when you fancied yourself in love with him.’ ‘A great folly on my part. I am glad nothing came of it. But not another word about it!’ Arm in arm, and in the kind of good spirits the promise of an exciting evening out is sure to induce in any young lady, the two sisters made their way downstairs to have their appearances praised by their mother. Mrs Thornton found much to be pleased about in her daughters’ appearance. ‘Are they not like angels?’ said Mrs Parsons.

‘I assure you I have never seen a pair of such handsome girls.’ In return, Mrs Thornton declared to Mrs Parsons how lovely Eliza looked this evening. She also declared that Eliza was not half as handsome as Harriet. However, this latter assertion was admitted only to herself. While not quite to the degree of her elder sister, Sophia was considered handsome, though perhaps a little too shy, and this was where she fell short. In fact, it was due to her retiring nature upon first meeting people that she often found herself overshadowed by the elder Miss Thornton, who, with her sparkling eye and general ability to charm, found it much easier to endear herself to those around her. Harriet was therefore expected to make an excellent match. Despite her evident drawbacks, Mrs Thornton, who possessed substantially more than the natural degree of optimism, where her daughters were concerned, was certain that Sophia would lose the timidity of youth and develop a little more boldness of character. After such a transformation, there could not be much to prevent her from marrying almost as well as her sister certainly would. ‘Eliza, do remember to take a shawl,’ said Mrs Parsons.

‘Though the weather was most agreeable today, I fear the evening shall not be so and you do not wish to catch a cold. It is always awful to be ill. Thomas is recently recovered from a cold. Though I always tell him it is dangerous for young people to be outside late at night, he often keeps late hours with his friends and returns home at a time which is very likely to cause mischief to his health.’ ‘I am not out nearly as often as you imply,’ replied Thomas, ‘nor half so late.’ However, Mrs Parsons was in a way of declaring that night air, even in small doses was still very dangerous, particularly for the young, as well as the infirm. ‘Indeed, when I last called on Mrs Fields, she agreed and said it was a great shame that we do not let blood these days as much as we ought. This was also the opinion of Mr Coleman and as a physician, he is much more knowledgeable on the subject than any of us could hope to be. There are so many new ideas about that we forget to keep things simple, he says. Simplicity in all things is very often forgotten in favour of anything modern.

At my age, I have come to appreciate the joys of a simple life but I will leave off speaking here as Mr Parsons is forever saying it would be well with me to buy a packet of full stops, though he is sure they should all run out before the morning is over. But do come along, girls. If we stand here talking, we shall never make it to the ball, which would be such a shame as you all look so lovely tonight. You do not want to end up like Mrs Brentley’s daughter – what’s her name now? You know, it has gone completely out of my head.’ ‘Ann?’ said Sophia. ‘No, the youngest one.’ ‘Sarah?’ ‘That’s it. Sarah. Such a sweet girl. We had a letter from her just the other day thanking us for the apples, didn’t we, dear?’ ‘Indeed we did,’ said Mr Parsons.

‘But that aside, just before they left for the ball, she was playing with the cat and it tore her dress and she had to forfeit the ball.’ ‘How horrid,’ said Harriet. ‘I should be very disappointed if I were prevented from going to a ball.’ ‘Yes, as was she and—’ ‘As should we all if we do not make haste and leave now,’ said Mr Parsons. He silenced his wife long enough to lead them outside but ere the wheels of the carriage had started to turn, she renewed her acquaintance with speech and entertained her family anew with her various ramblings.

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