History and mystery: The Face of Jane Austen
A few weekends ago I visited Bath. Naturally, as an admirer of Jane Austen, I went to the Jane Austen Centre. With the bicentenary of her death approaching, this was an exciting experience for me and my patient friend who came around with me – and, might I add, thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This included a 10-minute talk on Austen’s family background, by a ‘Miss Lydia Bennett’, before we independently went around the museum. There were a variety of panels about Jane’s life, regency costumes (which you could try on, much to our delight) and interactive exhibits. Yet, it was in the first corridor that I was struck by something. There hung 6 paintings. Yet only one of the them was a ‘definite’ painting of Jane. ‘Lydia’ shared with the few of us still examining the portraits how aspects of Jane’s life continue to be shrouded in mystery.
Jane’s eldest sister Cassandra painted Jane looking out over a field in around 1804. In a blue dress, Jane glances out over the distance. The painting shows the close relationship that existed between Jane and Cassandra, enjoying each other’s company through the joys of painting and posing. Would it be too much to imagine she might be thinking ‘What are men to hills and mountains’, as Elizabeth Bennett exclaims in Pride and Prejudice? It’s well known that Jane was only ever engaged for a day to Harris Bigg-Wither. Maybe the charm of this representation lies in imaginative spin we bring to what she might have been thinking about, as she was lovingly painted by her sister.
So moving on from the definite painting of Jane Austen, what about the others? I’m sure you’ll be aware of this next one. In fact, this incomplete watercolour portrait, again by Cassandra, is the basis of a subsequent painting which will be adapted for the new £10 note, to be released today (18th July 2017). The Bank of England has commented that the new £10 will honour Jane’s ‘universal appeal and enduring contribution to English literature’ . Indeed, Jane’s niece commented that, ‘there is a look which I recognise as hers…though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth’ .
Despite these inaccuracies of representation, this is still the dominant image of Jane that circulates today. On the £10 note, the portrait will be taken as ‘fact’, when the actual reality is still hard to ascertain. This portrait has been airbrushed for the banknote, further distorting her representation. More recently, as Lucy Worsley has remarked: ‘It’s an author publicity portrait after she died in which she’s been given the Georgian equivalent of an airbrushing’ . Is it a problem that the modern representation of Jane is not wholly accurate? Does it matter how visual representations change in reception over time? I’ll leave you to ponder these questions.
Fast forward to April this year and the famous Rice portrait has been the subject of much debate. This recent discovery potentially represents a younger version of Jane, painted by Ozias Humphry in the late 1780s. The National Gallery asserts that the stamp on the back of the painting does not match up with Jane being thirteen years old. The owner of the portrait nonetheless thinks otherwise. Jane’s appearance continues to stimulate intensive debate.
A hundred years on, what Jane looked like still matters intensely to art historians, to scholars, and to ‘Janeites’. Maybe it is safe to say we will never actually know what Jane’s countenance was like in reality. She continues to be a mystery. Indeed, history is a mystery. But maybe this mystery is but one of many things which contributes to her continuing legacy today.
For more on Jane Austen portraits, see:
Feature image: Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra (as above).