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?Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen, JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, paintings, portraits on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 · 7 Comments »