Before make-over, and after
A few years back, a publisher decided Jane Austen’s portrait by a Victorian era artist was too ugly to put on a book cover and decided to give her a make-over adding a new hair do and makeup.
“She was not much of a looker,” said Helen Trayler, managing director of publisher Wordsworth Editions.
It is debatable if the results could be classified as an improvement. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder one hears, so I will have to dish this new and improved Jane as clownish failure. Above is the before and after for your consideration.
We do not know unequivocally what Jane Austen looked like. Her sister Cassandra was an artist and did compose the one signed and dated sketch of her in 1804 sitting out of doors, her face gazing away from view and concealed by a large blue bonnet. Not much help. The second unfinished and unsigned pencil sketch and water color painting thought to also have been composed by her sister circa 1810 is the earliest portrait that we associate with her. The two sketches were entrusted to Cassandra Esten ‘Cassie’ Austen (1808-1897) Jane Austen’s niece (daughter of her brother Charles) by Cassandra to whom she had been close in her later years. The front view portrait remained in the family until around 1920, and then was purchased from a private party in 1948 by the National Portrait Gallery in London where it resides today. Renowned Austen scholar R.W. Chapman flatly did not like the portrait. Others thought it an ‘unflattering picture of a real person’  or that it relayed the ‘testy skepticism, the tough personality‘  of the sitter by Cassandra. I like it. My impression of her severe expression is that she did not want her likeness taken and preferred to remain anonymous like her novels; — by a Lady.
Cassandra Austen’s artist impression of her sister Jane
1.) Right, Cassandra Austen’s watercolor sketch ca 1810. The begining.
Even thought there is no documentation that this little sketch is of Jane, her niece Cassie Austen believed it to be so and offered it to her first cousin James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1869 when he needed a portrait for the frontispiece of his book A Memoir of Jane Austen published the following year. He and the publisher found Cassandra’s sketch to be unsatisfactory for their needs and commissioned a new portrait from James Andrews of Maidenhead who produced a watercolor sketch which was engraved by Lizzars. Upon seeing the new artist rendering, Cassie Austen remarked, ‘It is a very pleasing sweet face – tho, I confess, to not thinking it much like the original‘ . The new interpretation was thought to make Austen more presentable to the Victorian readers by softening her features with larger eyes, fuller lips and a more gentle expression – her first official make-over. It would not be the last. What has evolved over the years is quite amusing, presenting readers with the good, the bad and the downright ugly images of our beloved author. Here are a few that I have collected over the years. You may be your own judge as to which you prefer and have your say by voting in our poll at the end of the post.
2.) Left, Lizzars engraving after James Andrews new portrait was the frontis of A Memoir of Jane Austen, by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1870). Jane is Victorianized.
3.) Right, the ‘Wedding Ring Portrait’ engraved for Everet A. Duyckink’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America (1873). This image above all others is the most often seen.
4.) The ‘Rice Portrait’ now attributed to Ozias Humphrey. This famous oil painting was first used as the frontis in The Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Lord Brabourne in 1883. Controversially, it is still owned by the Rice family who recently unsuccessfully tried to sell it by auction at Christies for a bundle.
4.) Left, the ‘Fine eyed Jane’ version by M. Lamont Brown, was engraved for the frontis of In the Footsteps of Jane Austen, by Oscar Fay Adams, The New England Magazine, vol. 14, issue 5 (July 1893). My favorite image with Lizzy eyes, it is used in my header banner above.
5.) Right, signed by Y.H., this portrait was used as the frontis in Jane Austen and her Country House Comedy, by W.H. Helm (1909). I rather like it.
6.) Left, ‘Jane the debutant’ frontis by Lily Harmon, Pride and Prejudice, Books, INC. (1945). You can see the Hollywood influence of diaphanous frock a la P&P movie of 1940.
7.) Right, ‘Frightening Jane’ by Edward Price, frontis for Presenting Miss Jane Austen, by Mary Lamberton Becker (1952). A cross between the witches of Eastwick and Anne Boleyn. Could this be more unattractive or scary?
8.) Left, ‘Charming Jane’ by Jane Odiwe, artist and author of Lydia Bennet’s Story (2008). A modern interpretation that is both pleasing and true to Cassandra’s painting.
9.) Right, ‘Big nosed Jane’ by Mike Caplanis of Literary Luminaries is fun and not too offensive, though she does look a bit like actor W.C. Fields.
10.) Left, ‘Doe eyed Jane’ by Rocco Fazzari makes her looks harmless. We know better!
11.) Right, ‘Literary Jane’ by J. Bone appears all business. We happily agree.
There are numerous other images of our Jane floating around out there; — some surprising, some shocking, all interesting. We are continually amused at how her public persona has evolved, and am all anticipation of the next one to appear.
- Helen Denman, ‘The Portraits’, in The Jane Austen Companion, Macmillan (1986)
- Margaret Ann Doody and Douglas Murray, A Portrait of Jane Austen, (private printing) 1995
- Cassie Austen p. 280, Austen-Leigh, William and Richard, Jane Austen: A Family Record (1913)