December 6, 2011

Is this what Jane Austen really looked like?


The real Jane Austen?

A British scholar says she’s uncovered a lost portrait of Jane Austen that shows not the “frivolous and fey woman” portrayed in the few known portraits of her, but rather “shows a no-nonsense, professional woman who would not suffer fools gladly,” as a Telegraph article puts it.

Austen scholar Dr. Paula Byrne says the drawing, which depicts a woman writing, with Westminster Abbey visible through a window behind her, is “the image of Jane Austen so many of us have been waiting for.” She says the only authenticated portrait of Austen — a painting made years after her death, and based on a drawing by Austen’s sister — “always rather annoyed” her because it “makes her look pretty and dim,” Byrne says.

In a Guardian report, Byrne explains, “The previous portrait is a very sentimentalised Victorian view of ‘Aunt Jane’, someone who played spillikins, who just lurked in the shadows with her scribbling. But it seems to me that it’s very clear from her letters that Jane Austen took great pride in her writing, that she was desperate to be taken seriously. This new picture first roots her in a London setting — by Westminster Abbey. And second, it presents her as a professional woman writer; there are pens on the table, a sheaf of paper. She seems to be a woman very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view.”

As to how the portrait has suddenly reappeared from the mists of time, the Guardian explains,

The portrait drawing, in graphite on vellum, had been in a private collection for years, and was being auctioned as an “imaginary portrait” of Austen, with “Miss Jane Austin” written on the back. “When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar,” Byrne told the Guardian. “The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”

Jane Austen as she's been known for the last 150 years

A BBC report, however, observes that because Byrne is working on an Austen biography, “sceptics may suggest that the timing of the new find is beneficial publicity for Byrne.” But Byrne counters that she has been rigorously researching the rendering: “We consulted various experts from art historians to fashion experts to forensic analysts and then we put our findings to three of the top Austen scholars in the world. Two out of the three do believe that this could be Jane Austen and it presents a very professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers. They believe it dates to about 1815, before Austen died in 1817.”

For Byrne herself, though, there was never any doubt. “My immediate reaction was, ‘My God, it’s Jane Austen!’,” she says in the Telegraph report. “It was the nose that did it.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.