Jane will keep us together.
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Okay, internet, you can stop shouting now. We understand! There MAY—or may not—be a newly discovered portrait of Jane Austen living in the home of a Shakespeare scholar and his wife! It’s pretty different from the old one, thank goodness! We were going to have a nice chat about Jane and Feminist Ryan Gosling, or something, but we understand that this is The Thing this week. Ryan and his thoughts on gender can wait, gosh darn it, and the urgency of a three-hundred-year-old portrait just takes precedence.

I think the hullabaloo has less to do with the portrait’s historical significance, particular biographical importance, or any academic furor over it, and more to do with the portrait itself. The existing verified portrait of Jane, the so-called Cassandra portrait painted by her sister, is…well, it’s painted with a sister’s honesty, shall we say? This new one would, by comparison, definitely have been her dust-jacket photo—it’s completely believable in terms of having the same subject as the Cassandra portrait, but with all the benefits of a kind and skilled portrait artist, and without the possible effects of somebody who’s still pissed that you drank the last of the pulp-free orange juice at breakfast. As the Guardian so succinctly put it—and here I think they’re just saying what everybody else is thinking—Jane Austen wasn’t as ugly as people think. But the question is: Why do we care?

It seems to me that, for the most part, author sexiness is a moderately lucrative form of icing in today’s publishing market—a benefit, sure, but not an industry requirement. (And, might I add, thank goodness for that.) Nobody seems to obsess over the fact that Margaret Atwood’s had basically the same haircut for forty years, for example, and I think I could pick J.K. Rowling out of a lineup, if none of the decoys looked too much like her. I’m sitting here trying to think of a hot male author, and failing—not, I suspect, because they don’t exist, but because I read a lot of jacketless paperbacks. And yet the books sell, and we read, and everybody seems pretty happy.

So why do we want so badly for Jane to have been a fox? Much of the neurosis, I think, has to do with the stages set in her work; we want the woman who created all these winning romantic heroines to have the face of a winning romantic heroine. This is why the movie Becoming Jane exists: surely she was beautiful; surely she had a secret boyfriend who looked like James McAvoy; surely her life was a novel filled with affection and loving respect. Another theory is one I’m less sure about: that we want Jane to have been beautiful because identifying with a plain, single woman hits close to home in a subculture dominated by women and the issue of marriage. I see the trajectory of the argument; I also see the belittling underbelly of the argument. Heck, maybe we just want the poor woman to have a nice picture to put on her Facebook profile. Readers? What do you think?

Tagged: , , , , , on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 · 7 Comments »

7 Comments to “The Portrait of a Jane Austen”

  • Miss Osborne says:

    I think John Irving used to be hot. (Of course, this is coming from someone who also likes to talk about Alexander Hamilton is the most handsome man on American money.)

  • Miss Osborne says:

    Re: the portrait, don’t you just wonder how a historian or goes about authenticating something like this new image??

    I can’t see how it matters what she looked like. Though, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about having a different image to look at for once? It seems like there are only two pictures of Miss A that we ever see!

  • Michelle says:

    Trust me, at least in respect to the game of thrones series, hotness has nothing to do with it…

  • Stephani says:

    We always want our heroines to be beautiful and to have perfect lives (or at least to be deserving of a perfect life, and only beautiful people deserve that). For someone as revered as Miss Austen, it’s paramount that she be beautiful, or at least moderately attractive. Because she has to be. She’s a famous and brilliant author. You can’t possibly achieve that if you’re plain, right? Beauty is everything (and the only thing that matters): kindness, goodness, worthiness, talent, skill, wealth. Clearly all of us plain people will never amount to anything, never achieve anything, and can’t possibly deserve to be recognized for our talents.
    Poor Jane. To have her legacy reduced to: was she actually ugly, or was she secretly a hottie?

  • Emily Michelle says:

    Yeah, I kind of think the new portrait is also ugly. And I don’t think the Cassandra portrait is particularly belitting to Miss Austen; I find her to be not so much “cross” as “badly drawn”. So I’m equally happy to consider either one to be her portrait.

    I agree very much with your first theory. I think the desire to have Jane Austen be beautiful comes from the same place as people who think less of the romance in Austen’s novels when they discover she never married. Surely someone could not write about romance and desirable heroines unless she herself was a desirable woman with romance in her life, these people argue. Which I think is just silly. Her books would be fantastic even if she was one-eyed hunchback.

    And in answer to your search for a hot male author, I’d like to submit Richard Castle. Too bad he’s fictional.

  • Elenatintil says:

    This is really fascinating! Does it seem strange that this picture remained hidden for so long, though?

    On the topic of hot male authors… Neil Gaiman seems universally acknowledged as pretty attractive. ;)

  • Amy Jo says:

    Is it just me or am I the only one who thinks this looks like a feminine version of James McAvoy?

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