Much like the characters in her novels, Jane Austen recognized the power of first impressions. When the author met her brother’s fiancée, Mary Pearson, in 1796, she relayed a harsh assessment of the new acquaintance to her sister, Cassandra, writing, “If Miss Pearson should return with me, pray be careful not to expect too much Beauty. …. From what I remember of her picture, it is no great resemblance.”
Now, a newly discovered portrait puts a face to the name. As Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton recently acquired a miniature portrait of Pearson—a naval officer’s daughter who had a brief, ill-fated engagement with the writer’s older brother Henry—from art dealer Philip Mould. The museum also purchased miniature portraits of three of the Austen family’s neighbors, the Digweeds.
Per a statement, historians have previously theorized that Pearson inspired the character of Lydia Bennet, a central figure in one of Austen’s most famous works: Pride and Prejudice. As art historian Emma Rutherford notes for the museum, Pearson was “a young, pretty girl who jumped into a short-lived engagement with a dashing young soldier.” The 15-year-old Lydia likewise jumps into a whirlwind romance with soldier George Wickham.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes that the impulsive, boy-crazy Lydia and her sister Kitty “could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.” But whereas Lydia sticks it out with Wickham, Henry Austen broke off his engagement with Pearson, instead marrying widow Eliza Hancock the following year.
“Lydia is a rather fantastic character,” says Sophie Reynolds, the Jane Austen’s House Museum’s collections and interpretations manager, to the Guardian. “She’s really gleeful about the fact she gets married first, she thinks it is a real triumph. It is quite easy for our society to see that obsession about marriage as a kind of problem but back then it was, 100 [percent], what you had to do.”
The museum—housed in the 17th-century cottage where the novelist spent the last eight years of her life—is currently closed to the public due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, so Reynolds introduced the acquisition in a video.
British artist William Wood painted the image in watercolors on a three-and-a-half-inch tall ivory oval surrounded by a gold frame. Pearson is depicted wearing a white muslin dress, with her dark hair swept into an updo. Locks of the sitter’s dark brown hair were braided into a design on the object’s reverse—a practice common in Victorian jewelry-making and art-making, reported Allison Meier for Artsy in 2018.
During the Victorian era, miniature portraits were portable (and often expensive) likenesses made as mementos for loved ones. Because the Pearson portrait was created in 1798, Reynolds says the museum suspects it marked her reentry into society following the failed engagement.
“Henry broke it off rather disastrously for Mary,” explains Reynolds in the video. “She didn’t actually go on to be married for another nearly 20 years.”
Austen exchanged letters with Pearson in the years after the failed romance, even returning a parcel of letters she had written to Henry during their engagement, according to Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen. But the pair’s correspondence later lapsed, and by 1807, when both Austen and Pearson were living in Southampton, the author referred to the Pearsons’ house as “the only Family in the place whom we cannot visit.”