N.B. I wrote this post last year, when the Jane Austen waxwork had just been announced. It’s hard to say whether the waxwork had as much of an impact as I thought it would when I wrote this post, or whether it was just another media gimmick to distract us from all the real stuff actually happening in the world. Either way, it led to a great deal of musing on my part, the larger portion of which I share with you below.
Last year, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath announced an astonishing breakthrough: finally, after years of dull, disappointing images of the famous author gracing book covers and coffee mugs around the world, they had at last discovered what Jane Austen actually looked like. Hurrah! Cried Austenites everywhere. Finally, a release from the tyranny of the one authoritative portrait of the author! Finally, an image of the writer we can show our children! Finally, an image of a woman we would actually want to be friends with! And how was this miracle achieved? Well, by the patient efforts of a forensic scientist, who spent the better part of three years on a quest to discover the ‘real’ Jane Austen.
This obsession with Austen’s appearance is nothing new; generations of readers have felt extreme disappointment with the one and only portrait which scholars can say, with any certainty, is of Jane Austen. To an avid reader of Austen this obsession with how the author looked strikes one as incredibly ironic, given that Austen rarely commented on appearance in her novels; she was more interested in character than looks. But this has not stopped us from endeavouring to penetrate the ashes of Winchester’s vaults, and try to discover what our favourite Regency lady looked like.
Imagining Austen – The ‘Evidence’
The creation of this latest Austen-Image sounds remarkable, and the involvement of a forensics expert makes the project sound impressively ‘sciency’. It is apparently as near as “anyone has come to the real Jane Austen for 200 years”. Yet with no bones to go on, scholars and enthusiasts have very little evidence upon which to base their enquiries. The search for what Austen might have looked like is over practically before it begins. There are, of course, a few images which claim to be of Jane Austen. The only image which we can be absolutely one hundred per cent sure is Jane Austen is a small painting by her sister Cassandra, and shows a figure whose bonnet obscures her face. It’s actually the best representation of an author who is so elusive and mysterious. Then, of course, there is Cassandra Austen’s drawing of a severe-looking lady, which most scholars agree is of Austen. The figure, as the forensic scientist herself commented, “look[s] like she’s been sucking lemons”.
The tricky thing about this portrait is that there is much debate around it. Though most agree it is Austen, family members were later to comment on how little the portrait resembled Austen. The problem with this is, of course, that most of these comments were made after Austen’s death, and by people who had been children when Austen was alive. They would scarcely want to remember their aunt as a lady who looked like she had been “sucking lemons”.
Due to the lack of authoritative images, therefore, and working on the basis that Cassandra Austen’s sketch was, to a large degree, useless, the production of a ‘new look’ for Austen required a consultation of print sources as well as portraits. Descriptions of Austen written by family members were considered, as well as family portraits which might hold some clues as to shared physical traits. This presents yet another problem, primarily because the first real description of Austen comes from J. E. Austen-Leigh, who wrote a memoir of his ‘Aunt Jane’ in the 1860s. Speculations about who Austen was forced the family to write the Memoir, in order to provide an ‘authoritative’ version of the author, lest any unsavoury suggestions about her be made. The Memoir is therefore a collective family attempt to soften the reputation of Jane Austen, to turn her into an acceptable lady by Victorian standards, and thus protect the family’s own reputation. Of course, anyone who knew Austen as an adult themselves was either long dead or more or less senile. In short, what the creators of this latest waxwork used as evidence of Austen’s appearance is not so much ‘eyewitness testimony’, as many reporters claim, but a doctored account of an acceptably attractive Victorian lady, which was in any case extremely vague about specifics.
Austen’s growing popularity in the Victorian era prompted a re-drawing of Austen; from a dour, middle-aged woman Austen was transformed into a young, round-faced lady (with nary an imperfection or wrinkle to be seen) with a serene expression and gentle demeanour. The Victorian period softened Austen into a shape that she was to inhabit for decades to come: the ‘domestic writer’, for whom writing was a hobby rather than a profession, the spinster who wrote love stories because she had never been married herself (an insulting idea which we are still burdened with today). The Victorians possessed Jane Austen, transformed her body into yet another object which they could control, wiped away any trace of impropriety, sarcasm, or intelligence, from her appearance. This image of Austen has been remarkably persistent; it is this Victorian image of Austen that has been chosen to grace the new ten-pound note in England. The first (and only) woman to appear on British currency is the harmless spinster-writer, scribbling tales of romance and love in her spare time.
Austen’s New Makeover
Yet it seems that we will never be satisfied. Lovers of Austen continue to bewail the lack of physical representations, as if granting her physicality and form will somehow heighten their appreciation of her novels. Hence the new waxwork.
But this waxwork figure is less the Austen of reality than the Austen of our collective, twenty-first century fantasy. She is a Regency heroine. In her face can be detected traces of the features of just about every actress who has played one of her characters in the last twenty years. Her hands are clasped demurely before her, half-concealing (even today, she is still concealing!) a page that has been scribbled on. Though her hands grasp a quill, it is so pale that it almost disappears against her light skin. The viewer is drawn towards the elegant and beautiful hands which grasp the implement, rather than the object itself. There is a certain demurity to the photographs on this site, which show the waxwork quietly facing the collection of vulture-like cameras all pointed in her direction. Though there is a hint of a smile on Austen’s face, it is not a satirical smile; it is the patient smile of someone who is used to being looked to for guidance. This, I think, is Jane Austen, The Love Guru.
While the inclusion of the paper is something of a progressive step, it seems we are still squeamish about images that feature Austen actually working, images where she is not trying to conceal her writing and appear more feminine, more beautiful, more graceful. We want to see Austen, it seems, not Austen-the-Author. We want a heroine, not a satirist, as if the two are mutually exclusive. I have little doubt that this new version of Austen will quickly become fetishized; sweet, full-cheeked and attractive, the image is quite harmless. It is of a young woman, not so pretty that she is angelic, not so unattractive as to be off-putting. She looks like your best friend from childhood; she looks like the sort of person who will listen to you patiently spill all your hopes, dreams, and secret desires. She looks, in short, like a listener, not a speaker. And it is, furthermore, yet another commodity to add to the ‘Austen market’. I feel that the unveiling of this waxwork will be followed by new Austen mugs, t-shirts, postcards, and (if I’m not much mistaken) Austen bobbleheads. For a small monetary offering, you can have your picture taken with the ‘real’ Jane Austen, allowing viewers to indulge their fantasies of possession. This image, in short, has been created in order to be consumed, and in our endless, twenty-first century zeal to consume all things Austen, we are left with the unfortunate side-effect of having obliterated any trance of the real woman. In the twenty-first century, Austen is more and more associated with tote bags, bumper stickers, cute novel retellings, and certain male British actors who shall remain nameless. In the midst of all this, Austen’s novels – the pieces of art for which she earned her fame – and even Austen herself have been edged off onto the sidelines. We have consumed her, in short, into nothingness.
Is our endless dissatisfaction with Cassandra Austen’s drawing really disbelief in its authenticity? Or are we simply unwilling to accept the truth; that Austen could be serious and grumpy, as much as she could be charming and funny? That she was a real woman, with wrinkles, and imperfections, rather than an airy waif-like figure of gentle humour and good-natured mirth, the sweet Victorian doll that has come down to us through history? Instead, people ask, is it not easier to simply try and construct a portrait of an Austen we would have actually liked to meet?
It is clear that our culture continues to harbour an obsession with Austen, and not just with her face (this is the first Image of Austen to feature her entire body); it is a fantasy of possession, a desire to pin down the female form and illustrate, in one image, what Austen is. Trying to create an ‘authoritative Austen’ portrait helps to simplify the confusing figure that emerges from history; a woman who can write affecting love scenes and yet, at the same time, make fun of miscarriages and write about her acquaintances with cruel humour. It is an attempt to silence the unreliable narrator of Austen’s novels, that subversive voice which makes every sentence in the novels questionable, unstable, uncertain. The Daily Mail proclaims, “Her face may not be as familiar as her books, but that could soon change”. Austen is a powerful twenty-first century money-making machine; but in order to exploit her commercial power, we first need to unify all images of her into one universally recognisable (and eminently marketable) whole. Any subversive, questioning, or satirical note in her needs to be silenced. The release of a short clip, detailing the process by which the waxwork was created, allows us a voyeuristic look into the studio where this new Image of Austen is being created. We see Austen broken into pieces, her facial features shaped with an almost tender hand. She is helpless; we are putting her together the way we want her to be. There is no mystery, in short; we have seen Jane Austen’s guts. Nothing about her is secret anymore. She has become a kind of life-sized doll; Regency Barbie, perhaps.
The multitude of newspaper headlines assert that this is the ‘real Jane’. All other images of Austen are thus inadequate, proved untrue; even the image her own sister made is nothing in comparison to this new, ‘real Jane’. This waxwork is the Austen of the twenty-first century, with the stamp of approval from Science. And who, after all, can argue with Science?
Needless to say, it is the media, more than the scientists, who bear the chief blame for the hype around this new image of Austen. They have undoubtedly misrepresented and oversimplified the process by which this image was created, and it is the newspaper headlines which boast, ‘We have found the real Jane at last’. I have no desire to disparage the effort of those who have worked hard to develop this image of the author; forensic science is an astonishing field, requiring a great deal of skill and ingenuity. But it is not perfect; unless we have the real, flesh-and-blood subject before us, we have few ways of authenticating what can only be categorised as a well-researched and well-thought out guess. It’s like a painter living in an age without oranges, trying to sculpt a statue of the fruit with only an egg whisk and the testimony of a interdimensional time-traveller who saw an orange once, a long time ago – and actually, now that I come to think about it, it might actually have been a pear. This may well be the ‘closest we’ve ever come’ to ‘seeing Jane Austen’; but asking ‘what did she look like?’ is far less interesting than asking, ‘why do we care?’.