06 December 2011

jane austen may have looked like this

On Monday, big news hit the Jane Austen world: she may not have been ugly.

No, seriously, this was one of the headlines: Jane Austen wasn't as ugly as people think.

Jane has been in the news quite a bit over the last year or so—
Last fall, it was revealed that Jane's original manuscripts are full of terrible spellings and laughable attempts at grammar. The Queen of the Period Drama, unable to make a coherent sentence? If I knew what smelling salts were, I'd call for them; instead, I just wrote a little thing on her spelling mistakes, which you can read here.

Then there was the time a few weeks ago when a murder mystery author suggested that Jane Austen had been poisoned with arsenic. You can read about it in the Guardian here.

But—and my crime knowledge mostly stems from watching Law and Order with my parents {that chung-chung clangy thing they do at the end of scenes is addictive, I think}—don't you have to have a motive to have a murder? And who would want to kill Jane Austen?

I guess you could say someone who was jealous, but Charlotte Bronte {never Jane's biggest fan} was only 1 or so when Jane died. I don't think even the author who put a crazy lady in the attic of Thornfield Hall would've been familiar with arsenic in the cradle.

But—ooh!—maybe someone wanted to kill Jane because she was NOT ugly?!?!

Yes, it seems that Jane Austen was murdered because she was fairly all right looking. Let's go with that theory. I think that sounds like it should be the top item on the BBC News tonight.

This whole not ugly thing came about because an author who's writing a biography about Jane discovered what may be a portrait of her—and up until now, there have been just two accepted portraits of Jane.

One is an 1810 sketch by her sister Cassandra, and everybody says she looks cross about being a spinster in it.

This raises an important question: How do they {you know, smart academics} know she's cross about spinsterhood in the drawing? Couldn't she just have been upset that Elizabeth Bennet's character wasn't coming out right? Or maybe her sister was teasing her, or maybe she had a case of the mean reds.

One frown in a woman who is not married does not a cross spinster make. But you can judge for yourself—see the picture below. What do you think she's upset about?

The other accepted portrait is an 1870 re-doing of the sketch, one where Jane is not frowning but is looking off to the side, as if she's daydreaming about Mr. Darcy. This is the one used on most of the book markers and book jackets for Jane because who would want a picture of an angry spinster staring at you every time you picked up Sense and Sensibility?

So those are the two images we've had of Jane for hundreds of years, and when you're talking about a woman who couldn't spell and who may have been murdered, it's tiring to have to trot out the same images.

Enter the new portrait—and a sigh of relief that Jane wasn't ugly, although...

Okay, look at this potential new portrait of Jane.

Do you think this proves she wasn't ugly?

I see a crazy cat lady writer with a really long neck.

And I also think this: Why is it so important that we think of Jane Austen as pretty? As a successful woman? As a non-cross person? Why, if we can see so much of ourselves in our characters in their flaws and small joys, do we want Jane to line up with some sort of ideal?

Please discuss via a five-paragraph essay format. I will not judge you on your grammar and spelling, but do please include a picture.


  1. In rereading your post on Jane's less-than-stellar spelling and grammar, I noticed something I'd missed the first time: you actually tell me what stream of consciousness writing is for! I didn't know that it intended to get you into your character's head until a minute or so ago. Huzzah learning!

  2. 1. Excellent point about her appearance being an issue at all - we don't see articles about Charles Dickens (first male author that came to mind) and how his attractiveness may have impacted his career or relationships with others.
    2. Beauty is largely defined by the culture. So, she could have been considered smokin' hot in her day - if they used that expression.
    3. We don't exactly have photos with which to compare these portraits, so we are relying on the technical skills of the artists to capture a likeness. Considering the features in the two portraits are very different - I think all that they can tell us is that she was a member of upper class society (thus, having her portrait made) and that they really liked empire waist dresses.
    4. Happy Birthday!

  3. I have never once thought about how Jane Austen looked in life, but now I have because of your bloggy blog.

    I'm going to say this as, it is your birthday, I am happy you have had Jane's works in your life as she really does seem to give you an escape that a lot of us find in other pursuits.

    So, for that, I like her.

  4. I think I like the earlier portraits better. I think she has " a pair of fine eyes". And I think it's interesting that like you say, people care whether she was pretty or not. I have seen a lot of portraits of people who were considered handsome or beatiful in their time that I would never consider attractive. In fact we consider them so only because someone had written that they were. So I wonder if people consider Jane plain simply because no one ever wrote that she wasn't? Or it is because she was single that people assume she wasn't attractive. Maybe that's why we still love her so much. We still have so much in common.



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