Yet another Jane Austen portrait

Poor Jane Austen, I really identify with her. I do not photograph well — never have. I can go through my life with an overall favorable impression of my appearance based on seeing myself in the bathroom mirror and the fact that as I get older it gets harder to see clearly with my bifocals. So I really can’t see a lot of the little wrinkles and blemishes I’ve accumulated and I can largely convince myself I’m not actually hideous. But then someone takes a photo of me at a Christmas party or when we went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Thanksgiving Day and I got drafted into the Sherlock Bones play that’s part of the current animatronic T-Rex exhibit.

The performer hired by the museum to entertain the kiddies needed a Watson and my particular friend Lee volunteered me; and so I found myself wearing a dressing gown sized for a five year old and a tiny cheap plastic bowler perched precariously on my enormous head. But I thought my shame would go undocumented because there were NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs posted. I did not account for another of my friends surreptitiously photographing me with that scourge of the digital age, the camera phone.

Of course Jane Austen could not be surreptitiously photographed. There were no paparazzi portraitists laying in ambush for her. To make a sketch like the one that Dr. Paula Byrne is now championing as a true likeness of Jane, the artist would have needed Austen to sit for some time, next to a sleeping or possibly stuffed cat. Jane presumably would have been aware what was going one.

And apparently two out of three noted Austen scholars believe this to be a true likeness, although it doesn’t help that the dissenter is Deirdre Le Faye. Dr. Byrne claims to recognize the Austen nose, and it’s true that the nose of the person in the sketch does resemble that of some of the portraits of the various Austen men. But the problem is that this sketch resembles the men so much I’m tempted to say the face is that of one of the Austen men.

I’m sure Dr. Byrne has her reasons for making the claim, as paraphrased in this Guardian article, that the sketch “shows a writer at the height of her powers and a woman comfortable in her own skin.” But if one of my friends had taken of photograph of me that resembles this sketch — well, I hope they would have taken a page from Cassandra Austen and burned it, as she did some of her sister’s letters. Oh wait, Cassandra’s responsible for the only one true likeness of which I have previously disparaged. And I really do resent her burning those letters.

One other curious note about this sketch: Dr. Byrne’s husband bought the sketch at auction where it was advertised as an “imaginary portrait” of the author, a category which, according to the Guardian article, Dr. Byrne believes nonexistent. But the setting of Jane at a table with a sleeping cat and what Dr. Byrne identifies as Westminster Abbey in the background certainly looks imaginary to me. And of course if this is an imaginary portrait, then Austen probably didn’t sit for it. It might have been done by someone who’d seen her and then painted her from memory, perhaps aided by looking at portraits of her brothers.

Now I admit the thing with Jane is that we all have our vision of her and just like my own impressions of what I look like, our vision of Jane probably wouldn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny. This may very well be the true image of Jane, but unless we can go back in time and photograph her we won’t have a true likeness of her, and even then Jane, like me, could claim that photo looks nothing like her. And she would probably be right.

By the way, Dr. Byrne will be presenting a program on BBC2 on Boxing Day — Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait — and that even I would love to watch, if only the BBC would let US visitors access the iPlayer. I would happily pay for this service.

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