Cross-posted on Feministe)
I am a serious fan of Jane Austen’s books and of her ironic observers’ take on women and Regency society. She did not describe her characters very much, and was far more interested in their personalities and interactions than their looks.
The only authentic portrait we have of Austen is a sketch by her sister and closest companion Cassandra (1810).
Then much later in Victorian times (1870), her family published her redacted journals. (Her sister removed large portions of it after Austen’s death). Except for her occasional hard-edged ironic remarks, it was suited enough to Victorian sensibilities. However Cassandra’s portrait was not. So they had the artist William Home Lizars produce a imaginary portrait of Austen for the book. He made her a suitable, demure, Victorianly pretty spinster.
Dr Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen, said the chosen image made Austen look like “a pretty doll with big doe eyes”.
“It’s a 19th Century airbrushed makeover … It makes me quite angry as it’s been prettied up for the Victorian era when Jane Austen was very much a woman of Georgian character. The costume is wrong and the image creates a myth Austen was a demure spinster and not a deep-thinking author …
She was edgy for her time and the portrait by her sister Cassandra depicts an intelligent, determined woman.”
And now for our times, the Bank of England is putting Jane Austen on the 10 pound note. Or are they? Their Jane bears no resemblance to the woman in Cassandra’s portrait, but is rather a 21st century version of a vapid Jane Austen heroine in the popular movies. Each time her image is remade to suit society’s comfortable picture of a powerless, non-threatening, pretty woman.
The real Jane Austen is ironic, insightful and anything but unthreatening in her treatment of human beings and their relationships.
The physical Jane Austen may be lost to us, but we have her books.