Dear friends and readers,
Score another success for our JASNA-DC Janeite-Austenite group. Last spring we enjoyed a good luncheon together at the Holiday Inn Arlington, heard a stimulating talk by Patricia Meyer Spack on and (many of us) bought a beautiful, instructive and picture-laden edition of Pride and Prejudice, and had good company and talk; this year again the last two, this time the lecturer Deborah Kaplan who provided an insightful talk on the images of Austen, especially the Paula Byrne one. She meant not only to to try persuade the more sceptical among us to entertain the idea this new image could be (a poor) one of Austen but talk about why we want an image, what we come to any image armed with (so to speak) in the first place and corollary connected topics.
I’ve outlined the talk and our lively discussion afterward. See what you think.
Spring. Our JASNA-DC luncheo again at the Holiday Inn Arlington, this time featuring Deborah Kaplan, an 18th century and Jane Austen scholar (professor at George Mason University where I teach too). Her talk on authenticated and “pretender” images of Jane Austen brought us all back to the hot/sore topic of this past December: Paula Byrne’s claim that a 1814-1817 miniature painted of a spinster author at the back of whom the name Jane Austen can be seen is indeed Jane Austen.
Izzy was with me and appeared to enjoy the talk as much as I did and has written a succinct assessment of Professor Kaplan’s argument and discussion afterward about who this aspiring Regency authoress was: “Much ado about a picture.” I have blogged about the controversy before; that is, when first it erupted and when I saw the BBC program on YouTube. I wrote then that I thought the portrait was not of Jane Austen. Deborah has persuaded me to think again; her talk’s smaller goal was to demonstrate to us all the plausibility of the attribution. A larger issue was also canvassed: how our individual reactions to the image derive from our personal conjured-up sense of what Austen looked like, what she was like a person within, an identity we invent from reading her novels, letters and imagining her in her world.
Deborah began by handing out a sheaf of xeroxes of images of Austen: the Byrne portrait, Cassandra’s two portraits; the prettied up images commissioned by James Edward Austen-Leigh and the Rice portrait. She asked us to look at Byrne’s find and write next to that “yes [it’s Austen] or “no” [it’s not] and jot down a few reasons why we feel this way. I wrote “no,” she’s “very expensively dressed and likes stage-y self-projection;” “she’s a spinster and glad to be so;” and “she wants us to see her as an author.”
Deborah then began her talk. She first described and went over the history of the (above) previous images which have claimed authenticity. In 1804 Cassandra drew Jane in a bonnet from the back, gazing at a landscape; and in 1810 drew Jane sitting on a chair, facing really “scowling” at Cassandra, with her arms tightly-crossed, dark shadows under the eyes. In 1869 James Edward Austen-Leigh, her nephew (son of her eldest brother, James) commissioned James Andrew to produce a prettified cheerful version of the 1810 portrait for his memoir. Andrews made adjustments to her face, posture, arms, clothing. This was engraved and again “adjusted by Lizars for the actual printing. The dearth of images was lamented for decades.
Then two more contenders appeared. The first is known as the Rice portrait, a portrait of an adolescent girl, clearly not from the life which ignited a controversy in TLS in 1998. Since I have never put this one on any of my blogs or my website as I do not care for it (to me this image looks like a muscle-less feeble imitation of a Lancret or rococo Frency lady), I’ll put a copy of this one directly on this blog:
The second is Paula Byrne’s husband’s find, the miniature which precedes this blog (see above) and presented by Byrne to the public as plausibly of Jane Austen in a TV documentary hosted by Martha Kearney.
Deborah suggested Ms Kearney asked a good question early on in her program: Why are we so desperate to know what Jane Austen looked like? Her program showed why we care about this author. Deborah said th specialists consulted and dialogue made the program into a study of seeing. We watched a curator gasp in excited recognition; we heard Roy Strong grumble at being asked to put rubber gloves on “for [in his words] an amateur crummy piece of drawing that is ridiculous.”
To the program: we first leartn how the portrait has come to the public’s attention. Paula Byrne’s husband, Jonathan Bate, bought it for her for £2000 because it has written on its back “Miss Jane Austen.” Paula had a moment of recognition as soon as she saw the portrait. By going to Kearney and through her husband’s connections, Byrne was able to get quick access to specialists in fashion, costume history, literary history, and experts in forensic facial techniques. Byrne and Kearney claimed we know what most well-known people of the era and in that milieu looked like. Byrne believes this miniature will revolutionize our view of Austen. We then witness on the program how works of art are authenticated.
The program had a plot-design of suspense built in because at the end we were to have a jury of Deirdre LeFaye, Claudia Johnson, and Kathryn Sutherland (three respected Austen scholars) to decide the case. The argument was described throughout as an “uphill struggle.” The experts already mentioned plus people who studied portrait motif & frames could not rule out this image nor what we know of Austen’s later years when she stayed frequently with her brother in London around the area the buildings in the painting are located. The style of dress is 1812-14 and it’s very hard to fake a dress in such paintings. The generic features do not rule out Austen. A telling sequence took this image and overlaid it with images of her brothers For examples, look at the miniatures of Henry:
and finally Charles
Is there not a strong resemblance (only Henry stands out and it’s because the artist is so much better at capturing a living complex mind behind the face). Art historians confirmed the Byrne portrait is poor: the head does not sit properly on the body, her right arm is too long. The noses are especially similar.
There were some thoughtful remarks by scholars interwoven in: Claire Tomalin said “people long to find a portrait of an author or people they admire; there she is at last.” “There” she is speaks to our sense that this person as seen as been in a room, really existed, and this is a relic as well as a record, evidence from the moment. Barthes wrote of how we read books to find the author in them confiding in us; we seek intimacy as we read or enjoy a book.
What the program suggested — that this image could teach us what Austen looked like — is just what it showed us could not be so. The image of Jane Austen her readers have comes from a reading of her texts (novels, letters) and nowadays perhaps what we feel in watching the film adaptations: we seek confirmation of an identity we are conjuring up. We look to see our expectations met. Each of us characterizes “our” Jane Austen. It’s not that we have nothing to go on; the program demonstrated that we have a developed sense of what we are looking for, what she looked like, her inner self shining out.
Jane Austen had no oil painting (£300 the average price) nor even a miniature (£30), which was accorded each of her brothers but Edward, who had a full-length oil painting done of him when young and on tour as a gentleman. Many readers are not happy with the image of Jane scowling, her arms crossed, almost mocking the genre (as it were). Byrne’s theory is that Jane snuck off between 1814 and 1816 when in London and for one time in her life flush with some money paid for an amateur to paint her as an author all dolled up. The problem with this is would not James Edward Austen-Leigh have known or found out about it when he and Anna and Caroline (his sisters, Jane’s nieces) were seeking images for the memoir.
At the end of the program the three famous scholars had their say and it seemed they were reacting to the portrait according to some internalized image inside themselves. LeFaye rejected it adamantly: “too solemn, too sanctimonious, no I could not accept that.” Johnson was glad to move away from both Cassandra’s dark and/or absent images. Sutherland alone did try to distinguish the real Jane Austen from all these images. Deborah presented them as open-minded, not looking through a narrowly personal lens. (Nor Tomalin who offered the idea the woman in the portrait was trying to look official, a lady author.) They all four agreed it lacks skill; what artist could Jane have afforded?
But if we step back a moment we can remember that all images are mediated, be they paintings or modern photographs; all are shaped by contemporary conventions, the media used and all show the relationship between the creator and subject as much as anything else. Cassandra’s image reflects Cassandra’s reaction to her sister and people have suggested its darkness, the tiredness of the sitter (she looks like she has not had a good night’s rest for several days) is the result of poor drawing, blotting the ink. Perhaps this one too does not persuade and is not really like Austen because it too is poor. Deborah thought this might be a portrait of a woman comfortable in her own skin who meant to be triumphant and thrilling but the ineptness of the artist could not put this across.
Deborah herself was falling back on her own book, Jane Austen among Women and her pre-conception. She suggested perhaps Jane was encouraged to have her portrait done by a woman friend; in her women’s circles, the women spoke far more confidently, and this is a product of her woman’s culture. As such, it’s endearing. Apparently Deborah at first liked the citation of Eliza Chute as the go-between who hired the painter, but as Byrne has dropped this idea (having over-emphasized Austen’s closeness to Chute) so has Deborah moved away.
No portrait can tell us what she looked like since we all see each one differently.
Jane Austen’s pelisse?
Deborah then threw the discussion open to all the audience and asked for a show of hands which of us thought this was audience and with a number raising their hands “yes” she looked surprised. She asked who said “no” and there were many more hands. She asked those who were willing to say why to volunteer what they had written down the Byrne portrait image she had handed out as a xerox at the opening.
The discussion was great fun as people were frank. I learned some new facts and about new paraphernalia associated with Austen I had not known about before. For example, there is a pelisse at Chawton cottage which is claimed to have been worn by Austen. But it is so tiny she would have to have been much shorter than 5 five 3 and very thin and all that has been said (and Cassandra’s portraits) show us a chubby and speak of a tall woman (5 five 7); Henry is said to have been tall, and so too Charles. Some people made intriguing observations: why did Cassandra draw Austen as depressed and unhappy even if she was? would not Cassandra have wanted to present a conventional happy image to the world, or simply remember Jane that way herself. One young woman said, oh yes, when she saw that face (in the Paula Byrne miniature) she said, that’s her, I know it. (Recognize her, this confirms my pre-conception.)
My contribution was to congratulate Deborah upon invalidating all of our arguments in the first place by arguing they were all reflecting our previously conceived Austen and whether the Byrne or Cassandra images confirmed that. I also liked her second sceptical reminder: that it may be that the portrait does not look like Jane very much because it’s so poor. But when I (and others) suggested that she was making us begin to entertain seriously the idea Byrne’s miniature was meant to be Jane, Deborah reminded us all that Byrne is an indepedent scholar, holds no position at a university (meaning she probably has no income of her own and is dependent on her husband). It costs to do research (traveling about, money for reproduction). If Bryne convinces people this is Jane Austen, she will not only sell her biography more widely, she will be able to see her miniature for something like 1 million pounds.
And so I come to an explanation for the presence of Anna Chancellor’s image at the top of this blog.
Over supper in the evening we (Izzy and I) discussed the portrait with Jim for the first time. It quickly emerged that when all has been said that can be, the case for the miniature being Austen still rests on a lack of evidence. Everything generally historical about it places it in Austen’s era but nothing else is known. The narrative of Austen sneaking off and turning to women friends is wholly made up. We can say this because (it’s said) we know little about how she spent all her days in London. But she didn’t have to have her portrait done at all. In Cassandra’s, she seems strongly adverse to having her image taken.
Izzy remembered in her blog the woman who said she thought Byrne’s miniature was Austen because it reminded her of Anna Chancellor, the actress who played Miss Bingley in the 1995 P&P and who is said to be a descendent of the Austens somehow or other. for my part I do see it and apart from Miss Bingley I often like the roles Anna Chancellor plays. I have to say that were a jury to hear the story of this attempt at a dignified image by Austen and her women friends, a judge would tell us the evidence for both theories is nil.
Does it matter? Yes. Does it matter to us what our authoress looked like? Deborah’s talk confirmed why a “yes” is not silly. To me Cassandra’s two portraits confirm what I feel is true about Jane Austen: nothing phony, more than a little asocial (understandably, for good reasons); on one day in 1810 she’s worn down, worn out by her marginalized position, tired from her efforts at living and writing against the odds, and as in her poetry, suffering bad headaches. On another six years earlier we see her in better spirits and loving to be absorbed in landscape, in reverie.