As Pride and Prejudice hits its bicentenary, Steve McKenna treads its author's trail in England's idyllic West Country.
Scarf-clad, wrapped up warmly and fortified by a glass of mulled wine, I'm relishing the wintry chill of beautiful Bath when I feel a gentle whack on the leg. An elegantly-dressed middle-age woman is trying to gain a foothold on the pavement with a walking stick. Instinctively, I say "sorry" (I'm in England; it's the done thing to apologise for being mildly assaulted).
She smiles, says "sorry" too, and, as I breeze off, I hear my attacker talking to her friend in a posh, but slightly yokelly West Country accent: "Oh I should've told my stick to behave. You can't go around hitting handsome young men now, can you!" As the pair giggle, I imagine, for a few, fleeting seconds, that I'm Mr Darcy. Forgive my self-indulgence. In Bath, wallowing in Jane Austen-inspired moments comes as naturally as tapping your feet to samba beats in Rio de Janeiro - providing you're partial to a bit of Austen, of course.
The dame of English literature set two of her novels - Northanger Abbey and Persuasion - in Bath and also gleaned material for her other stories, including Pride and Prejudice, which in 2013 notches the 200th anniversary of its publication.
My Darcy delusion is shattered when I spot a photograph of the man himself - OK, Colin Firth, looking ridiculously dapper in a white cravat - in the window of the Jane Austen Centre.
Set inside one of Bath's quintessential honey-stone townhouses, the centre explores Austen's links with Bath, and the impact that both holidaying here (in the late 18th century, as an impressionable teenager) and residing here (as a more circumspect young woman, between 1801 and 1806) had on her and her writing.
Some of the events celebrating the Pride and Prejudice bicentenary will coincide with the annual Bath Literature Festival (March 1-11) and Jane Austen Festival (September 13-21), but the centre kicked things off last week with a 24-hour read-a-thon, which saw Pride and Prejudice read in its entirety, in 10-minute segments, by celebrities, authors, politicians, musicians, Olympians and local schoolchildren.
Such is the global appeal of the novel, which has sold an estimated 20 million copies worldwide and starts with the unforgettable line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife", the read-a-thon was streamed over the internet. On regular days, a visit to the Jane Austen Centre begins with a sit-down talk by a guide who looks as if she's walked off the set of a BBC period drama.
As I'm regaled with everything from Austen's family background (her father was a rector and she had seven siblings) to Jane's embrace of spinsterhood ("Anything," Jane wrote to her niece Fanny Knight, "is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection"), it's as if I've been transported back to my English literature classes at school.
Head full of Austen titbits, I peruse the centre's rich Georgian-Regency era furniture, period sketches and portraits, exhibits about Austen's life, and a selection of costumes that visitors are encouraged to try on. Women can go all Elizabeth Bennet with some choice frocks, cute bonnets and lace parasols, while there are Darcy-esque top hats for the men, but, alas, no fake mutton chops.
Upstairs, in one of Bath's many enticing tea rooms, the menu features Mr Bennet's Rich Tasty Toasties and Lady Catherine's Proper Cream Tea (including warm scones served with Dorset clotted cream and locally sourced jam).
At weekends, the centre runs guided walking tours of Bath, taking in the spots where Austen lived, walked, socialised and shopped. An alternative, for tech-savvy tourists, is to download the Jane Austen audio tour on to their smartphone or MP3 player (from visitbath.co.uk), or the Austen Tour iPhone app. From the centre and gift shop (a treasure trove of Austen books and memorabilia), you're a stone's throw from two of her former abodes: one's across the street, fringing the splendid Queen Square; the other is about a dozen houses upstreet and now a dentist's surgery.
Jane spent most of her Bath years living on the opposite (east) side of the River Avon at 4 Sydney Place, at the end of Great Pulteney Street, one of the city's most grandiose thoroughfares, which appeared in the 2004 movie Vanity Fair (an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1847 novel, with Reese Witherspoon and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Incidentally, just south of here, Bath's rugby and cricket clubs are potentially fertile hunting grounds for women angling for eligible bachelors.
However, most of Bath's social gatherings and flirtatious exchanges occur west of the Avon.
Back in Austen's day, the it-place was the Assembly Rooms - east of the Circus, a gorgeous ring of 33 Georgian properties split into three symmetrical terraces. Austen took tea (an expensive import back then) and set scenes from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion at this glamorous den of gossip-strewn, fan-fluttering activity.
Today, guests can admire the old tea room, card-playing room and ballroom, which still hosts fashionable functions and weddings, while in the basement the Fashion Museum displays clothes, shoes and bags from the 16th century to the present day.
Austen tragics will be drawn to the high-waisted muslin gowns and embroidered cotton petticoats.
Amble down sloping Milsom Street - where Jane's characters shopped for bows and bonnets - and you'll soon reach another refined social hub, the opulent Pump Room restaurant, which is attached to the city's old Roman Baths.
Tourists now come to Bath - the only place in Britain with natural hot springs - to be pampered (especially at the cutting-edge Thermae Bath Spa), but visitors in the past (including Jane's gout-suffering brother, Edward) took to the waters for medicinal purposes. It was also thought beneficial to one's health to drink eight pints of spa water a day. Patrons now to tend to stick to just one sample glass - if that.
The Pump Room starred in the 1995 film version of Persuasion, whose key scene - the romantic reunion between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth - takes place along the Gravel Walk, a kind of Lover's Lane in Bath that curves round the back of the circus and winds up behind the Royal Victoria Park. This, in turn, nudges the luscious green lawn of the Royal Crescent, arguably Bath's most picturesque street, where Austen and the cream of Bath society would promenade following Sunday Mass. The multimillion-dollar properties of this sweeping, semi-circular stretch are mostly in private hands, out of bounds to the public - apart from No. 1 Royal Crescent, a museum offering a glimpse of Georgian life (it should reopen after refurbishments about March), and the Royal Crescent, a sumptuous five-star hotel, spa and restaurant at the centre of the row.
Roaring coal fires, glittering chandeliers, gilt-framed paintings and antique furniture decorate the hotel's public areas and 45 luxurious rooms (including a Jane Austen suite), while its tranquil, secluded garden could, in summer at least, be the perfect place to enjoy alfresco afternoon tea.
Indulging in sun-kissed, Austen-induced nostalgia from the balcony of my room, I ponder the contrast between the Crescent's neat, uniform facade, laced with Ionic columns, and the jumbled, higgledy-piggledy designs out back. In Georgian times, it was common for the facades of rows of properties to be designed by one architect, with the rears of the buildings left up to individual owners' devices.
For many social commentators - not least Austen - this was symbolic of Georgian society: what you see, at first, isn't always what you get.
After checkout, and with a train to catch, I dash towards the railway station and nearly collide with a tour group of young Chinese women, led by a loquacious gentleman from the West Country.
As we wait at a set of traffic lights, the guide mentions Jane Austen to his group. The women, who had been blithely snapping away with their cameras, suddenly appear hypnotised. While I marvel at Austen's legacy, and her talent for bridging different centuries, continents and cultures, one girl swings round and, for a moment, I think my eyes are deceiving me.
But, no, the banner on her shoulder bag definitely says, "I heart Darcy".
The writer was a guest of Bath Tourism and the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa.
Five other places for Jane Austen diehards
1 Steventon Jane Austen spent most of the first 25 years of her life in her small Hampshire birthplace, 90 kilometres from Bath, near Basingstoke. It's thought she wrote the first versions of Northanger Abbey, Sense & Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in Steventon. ja-steventon.co.uk.
2 Chawton After living in Bath, Austen moved to another pleasant Hampshire village, Chawton, where she wrote Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, as well as revising her other novels. Her old red-brick house is now a museum dedicated to her life, and will host events to mark Pride and Prejudice's bicentenary. jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.
3 Lacock This picturesque Wiltshire village was the setting for fictional Meryton in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Mad Max Tours runs trips here from Bath. madmaxtours.co.uk.
4 Winchester Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, of suspected tuberculosis, and was buried in the Gothic cathedral of the historic Hampshire city of Winchester. A striking brass memorial plaque overlooks her grave. winchesteraustentrail.co.uk.
5 London Open-air stage performances of Pride and Prejudice will take place in Regent's Park from June 20 to July 20; openairtheatre.com.
Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa. 16 Royal Crescent. Priced from about £159 ($239). +44 1225 823333, royalcrescent.co.uk.
Jane Austen Centre, 40 Gay Street. £7.45 adults, £4.25 children (6-15). +44 1225 443000, janeausten.co.uk.