In a rarely seen 1869 portrait of Jane Austen, the beloved author sits in a wooden chair, wearing a ruffled dress with a bright blue sash. Her expression is docile, content. It’s a perfectly lovely painting, but it is thoroughly devoid of spark—so unlike the woman known for her quietly withering takedowns of Georgian society.
“[It’s] a completely empty face,” says Kathryn Sutherland, Austen scholar and curator of The Mysterious Miss Austen, a new exhibit at the Winchester Discovery Center in the UK county of Hampshire. “It's sweet, it's a kind of Victorian idea of womanhood.”
This portrait will be displayed alongside five others that seek to explore Austen’s life and work, her longstanding appeal and her persistent elusiveness. One might think that the portraits, taken together, would give viewers a more robust sense of the author—at least in terms of her physical appearance. Instead, they highlight just how enigmatic she has become in the years since her death.
“These six portraits, five of which are lifetime portraits, all … have by some route or other a reasonable claim to be Jane Austen,” Sutherland says. “No two of them are alike. That in itself sets a big question mark over her, doesn't it?”
Though she was not an immensely popular author during her lifetime, Austen created some of the most enduring characters of Western literature: the fiery Lizzie Bennet, the precocious Emma, the dissimilar Dashwood sisters. The basic facts of Austen’s biography are known, but much speculation has surrounded the more obscure details of her life, as Allison Meier points out in Hyperallergic. Was she a “secret” political radical? Was she locked in a love triangle? Did she die of arsenic poisoning?
The Mysterious Miss Austen was inspired by the paradox of the author’s legacy. “What we're looking at is the fact that Jane Austen is in fact a writer, a novelist who inspired such intimacy in her readers,” Sutherland explains. “People feel very close to her … But in fact, despite this intimacy, she is so unknowable. There's so little that we can know.”
The exhibit seeks to shed some insight into Austen’s life—and in particular, her relationship to her birthplace of Hampshire. According to a press release from the Hampshire Cultural Trust, visitors to the museum will be able to explore a selection of Austen’s personal items: a silk coat patterned with oak leaves, one of her purses, a farcical history of England—told from the perspective of "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian"—that Austen penned when she was just 15-years-old. The exhibit also features an alternate ending to the novel Persuasion, written in Austen’s own hand.
But it is the six portraits, which have never before been displayed at the same time, that make up the centerpiece of The Mysterious Miss Austen. The aforementioned 1869 watercolor was commissioned by Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, as a model for the engraved cover of his 1870 biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen. This portrait, painted after Austen’s death, is based on an 1810 sketch by Austen’s sister, Cassandra.
The Cassandra drawing, which is the only confirmed portrait of Austen during her lifetime, depicts the author with her arms folded, her face set into a grimace. It is a vivacious and humorous likeness—and, according to Sutherland, it is also a more fitting portrayal of Austen than the professional painting of 1869.
“There is enormous energy and life in that face,” she says of the Cassandra sketch. “What the family wanted from the professional who made the 1869 portrait … [was] a portrait that the public would find acceptable, and they knew that Cassandra's sketch was not acceptable for the public.”
The Mysterious Miss Austen features a second work by Cassandra, which depicts Austen in a blue dress, sitting on the grass. Only a sliver of Austen’s cheek is visible from beneath her wide bonnet, offering another tantalizing glimpse of the author.
Of the two remaining portraits, one is an 1816 silhouette of unknown provenance, the other a dramatic sketch of Austen by James Stanier Clarke, the chaplain and librarian to the Prince of Wales. He met Austen in 1815 and, according to Sutherland, was “quite besotted” with her. Stanier Clarke’s portrayal is starkly different from the other portraits. His Austen wears a glamorous black and red had, her shoulders are draped in a cascading shawl, and a brown muff is wrapped around her hands.
“I think [the portraits] say a lot about the relationship of the painter to the subject,” Sutherland says. “[T]he one done by the prince's librarian, it's a kind of fantasy portrait … Whereas I think Cassandra's portraits get a sense of real intimacy and a sense of character to them, because they know this woman inside out.”
It is difficult to say which of the images on display gives us the truest sense of Austen’s appearance and demeanor. But perhaps it's best to look to Austen’s much-loved collection of novels—which sparkle with humor, empathy, and wit—to find the best portrait of the enigmatic author.