Jane Austen Is Not A Pretty Girl

Cross-posted on Feministe)

Laurie says:

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.”
BBC News

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.

12 thoughts on “Jane Austen Is Not A Pretty Girl

  1. Austen flirts with the convention of the drop-dead beautiful heroine in Northanger Abbey where she notes that “To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”

    I can’t find it but I think there’s a passage a little later where Austen points out that while no one at the ball stops and stares at Catherine’s beauty, anyone who had seen her a year or so earlier would have to admit she was “much improved.”

    I also have a fondness for Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, who triumphs in reviving the love of the admirable Captain Wentworth even though her looks are “ruined” by her advanced age of 27.

  2. I like the Lizars portrait better than you do– Austin is somewhat prettified, but she’s still very much the sharp observer who is surprised and unhappy with what she sees.

    The five pound note version is completely insipid.

    1. Nancy, there’s a fascinating essay by Paul Collins in Banvard’s Folly about how forgeries get uncovered when the social context changes. We see the original thing (play by “Shakespeare,” painting, whatever) differently in the new context, and the forgery is a forgery of the old context, so it doesn’t work any more. Your comment reminded me of this.

  3. Austen’s novels contain almost no visual descriptions, which is one reason I find her difficult to read. The dry wit also mostly goes over my head.

    I think we don’t know whether Austen was pretty or not. Do we have enough drawings by Cassandra to know whether she was an accurate and perceptive portraitist? Do we know whether Cassandra was annoyed with Jane the day she made that drawing? Do we know whether Jane was out of sorts or deliberately making a funny face at Cassandra?

  4. Appreciate the comments.

    For me the issue is not so much what Austin really looked like. Casandra’s sketch may not be not particularly well done but it’s a drawing by someone who knew her intimately whatever the expression or pose.

    For me the point is the historical need to diminish and prettify women authors.

  5. Honestly, I don’t see a big difference between Cassandra’s drawing and the portrait or the banknote.

    I note that there’s an assumption in our culture that pretty women aren’t smart and need not be observant or funny. That being funny is for women who can’t compete in the beauty sphere, so they fall back on being a clown.

    1. Lizzie,

      Seeing the differences in the portraits is in the eye of the beholder. I think both of the stereotypes you refer to are very real. Austen is a complex and ironic writer whose observations give us insight into the lives and actions of human beings of her times and more universally. I’m not sure if you were suggesting that the stereotype of the “funny” unbeautiful woman is relevant when we discuss her but it’s _not_ what her life and work are about.

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