Portraits of Austen?

According to The Guardian, an old portrait belonging to the Rice family, descendants of Jane Austen’s family, has finally been validated as that of the author at thirteen. It’s a lovely portrait, and she looks so sweet and pretty and exactly like one of the other portraits that I’ve seen. However, some doubts remain, and I don’t know if wishful thinking is at play here. Read the article and see for yourself. It looks very like the portrait I link to here, but not very like another candidate, in which Jane looks very stern and forbidding and has an entirely different nose and face. And it does look very like the portrait by Cassandra, her sister, found here:

From The Guardian:

Using digital photographic tools analysis has revealed writing on a long-disputed oil painting that its owners claim shows Jane Austen as a teenage girl. No other professional likeness of the writer exists.

The discovered words appear to include not only the novelist’s name, but also that of the suspected artist.

There are a couple of things — Jane Austen’s family, while respectable, were not rich. She did have wealthy relatives, and the portrait was supposedly made at her great-uncle’s house. How common was this? Did someone just say, hey we should have a formal portrait made of our young niece? Family history has long asserted that the portrait is of Jane, and while family lore is famously flexible (my brother in particular has never let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote), it seems this time the family is on to something.

I say it’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman, and another fascinating glimpse into the life of a genius.


Mansfield Park – a review

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s least-popular novel. I recently re-read it, and I think it has this undeserved rap because of one major misconception, that it’s a romance. It’s most emphatically not. And read with that understanding in mind, I had a new appreciation for this work.

I’ve come to love Austen less for the Marriage Plot and more for the glimpse into the world of early 19th century England. She was a cultural anthropologist who was able to draw her complex society and provide great insight into her life and times. I love reading about how men and women interacted, worked, ate, shopped (yes, shopped!) spent their leisure time, parented, prayed, and lived. Mansfield Park is full of this kind of observation. Emma is also good in this way, and come to think of it, Emma is also not a romance. (Emma’s actually kind of an anti-romance.)

It is also such a realistic look at how the poor lived that it’s as close to Dickens as we’re going to get for another three or four decades. The interlude in Portsmouth is wonderful in its depiction of the poor, crude, vulgar Price family, their dirty house, and their slatternly maid. Their only consolation, Mrs. Price’s handsome family, is pitiful in its weakness.

Mansfield Park is also the most modern of Austen’s books. She has a dense literary style, but Mansfield Park is almost streamlined in comparison to Pride & Prejudice. I was struck by how often I forgot I was reading a period work, since not only the style but the cadence and word choice are spare and to the point. Austen says at one point that Mrs. Norris is “sponging” off another character. Same word, same slang, and it was startling in its effect.

To modern readers, the big problem is Fanny Price. How can we like a heroine who is so priggish and mealy-mouthed and never sticks up for herself? Edmund too, comes across as a humorless prig. Come on! It’s just a play! I wanted to yell at both of them. As for the two villains of the book, Mary and Henry Crawford, really, how bad are they? The moral repugnance that Fanny holds for Henry, after he does everything for her, got really tiresome after a while. As for Edmund, since he’s ready to forgive Mary for her shallowness if she’ll only marry him, we can’t really take his concerns seriously.

And that is exactly Austen’s point. This is her most worldly book (and anyone who ever thought Austen was sheltered is laughably wrong – this is a very sophisticated novel) and what she is saying is, yes, to most of us, even in her time, the Crawfords really aren’t that bad. They are just rich and selfish, so give it a rest already!

I bet her contemporaries didn’t like Mansfield Park any more than modern readers do. Because that’s Austen’s point – where do we draw the line on badness? And what does it say about us that we’re ready to give Mary and Henry a pass because they are charming, and Henry really is trying to be good, dear boy?

If you haven’t read Mansfield Park in a while, give it another try. I gained a new appreciation, among other things for Austen’s evident admiration for sailors. I wonder if she had as a girl ever dreamed of going to sea, before the constrictions of society ground any sense of adventure under its boot. The scenes and characters are some of her best ever. The Portsmouth interlude and the character of poor Mr. Rushworth especially are vivid and memorable. Mrs. Norris is a one-note villain, but her villainy is so within character that once again, we know people like her.

If you’ve read it, chime in here and let me know what you thought.

Giveaway contest winner is…cyn209

Who said:

i’m a recent fan of JaneAusten (i know, the horrors!!!), but at least i’m a fan, right???? i enjoy how as classic as her stories are, they are just as timeless…………i’m just fascinated how Jane inspired other writers to continue or put their own spins on her thoughts……”


Cyn, send me your snail-mail address via the contact form and I will send out a copy of Miss Bennet at once.

Thanks everyone who entered. I loved reading your responses about Jane Austen and I was vigorously nodding my head yes yes yes! to everyone.

Every time I read her books I get something new.

She is timeless — I recognize her characters from school and life, and I suspect that says something about women in Western culture that is not all good but is, for lack of a better word, consistent. We have more options now, more scope for our lives, so maybe we shouldn’t be so caught up in relationships. And it is significant to know that prior to the era in which Austen was writing, Mary Wollstonecraft had written A Vindication of the Rights of Women, so even back then there was awareness that human rights for women were sorely lacking and their lives so cramped and bounded that even their souls wore corsets.

(Patrice, where are you going with this?)

Right. So, when a grown woman in Jane Austen’s time acts like a mean seventh grader, as Anne Eliot’s older sister in Persuasion, I recognize it for what it is and think, I do believe that we have outgrown that. That is, the mean seventh grader attitude is now confined to seventh grade mostly, and most adult women have outgrown it.

(I’m blogging this in the early morning. Hence the general incoherence.)

I also like the fact that the romances in Austen’s novels take back seat to societal observations. Austen is best when she is drawing characters. Her plots are small but she gets relationships of all kinds — maternal, parental, sibling, daughters and sons. When people behave well, they are rewarded; badly, and love is withdrawn (Willoughby in S&S). But no one is martyred. No one suffers the way they are forced to in a Victorian novel or a Gothic one. It is as if she says, emotions (sensibility) can take you so far, but sense is what carries the day.

Thanks for joining in, everyone!