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In the 2007 Report of the Jane Austen Society, Deirdre Le Faye wrote an article entitled Imaginary portraits of Jane Austen. In it she commented on portraits of Jane Austen which were not taken from life, and she included in this category this image, below, which is  now owned by Paula Byrne and the subject of so much interest today.

She writes:

This might well be the creation of the Reverend William Jones (1777-1821) curate and vicar of Broxbourne and Hoddesdon- or if not him someone with very similar interests. On 17th April 1818 Mr Jones confided to his diary:

Whenever I am very much “taken with” an author,I generally draw his or her likeness in my own fancy: but I am a flattering painter. I had done this of Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins; but Mrs Davis has told me that somebody has told her(  I don’t know how many somebodies deep) that L.M.H. is “very plain”. I still long to see her and to become acquainted with her”.

Le Faye remarks that the artist-whom so ever that may be!- seems to have read Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice of Jane Austen, published with the first editions of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in 1817,  and imagined this vision of her as a result. She also notes that elements of the portrait are symbolic: the cat asleep on the table  to the right of the portrait indicates spinsterhood.The church tower she thinks is reminiscent of Canterbury Cathedral and is a nod to Jane Austen being, in Henry Austen’s word,  “throughly religious and devout”.

The plot thickens….

The British media is agog this morning with the possibility of there being a  newly, previously unknown, recently  discovered portrait of Jane Austen for us all to deliberate upon. Dr Paula Byrne whom you may know from of the book, Jane Austen and the Theatre fame, is currently writing a new biography of Jane Austen, The Real Jane Austen. This is destined to be published in 2013 to coincide with the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. Dr Byrne claimes that this portrait, below, is of our favourite author. Do click on it to enlarge it to see the details

The portrait was brought to her attention by her husband Jonathan Bate, the renowned Shakespearian scholar. He saw it was going to be sold at auction and thought the resemblance to Jane Austen was strong.  The pencil drawing on vellum was bought by Paula Byrne who discovered that “Miss Jane Austen” was inscribed on the reverse. Dr Byrne  is today quoted in the press with her arguments supporting her contention that the portrait is of Jane.They are as follows:

The ‘memoir portrait'(below-jfw) has always rather annoyed me. It makes her look pretty and dim. It feeds this whole notion of ‘Aunt Jane’, the demure spinster who was very good at spillikins and enjoyed scribbling on the side, but was content with her life in the shadows.

Scholars know there was so much more to her. And for me this new picture encapsulates – almost too perfectly – that other side. She’s a professional woman presenting herself to the world with the tools of her trade. It’s the image of Jane Austen so many of us have been waiting for.

Paula Byrne was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme this morning, and cross-examined quite closely by Will Gompertz, and you might like to hear their exchange. Go here to  listen to it. In the interview, Dr Byrne claims that 2 out of the 3 most important Jane Austen experts agree with her that the portrait is indeed of Jane.

I think we discerning readers have been well aware for some times  that  there is so much  more to Jane Austen than being a genteel, domestically minded spinster sitting at the fireside, as portrayed in the original Memoir by her nephew. For example, through my readings of her novels, I have discovered that she appears to have been very political indeed and espoused some of the most famous political causes of the day ;) But its good to note that the new biography of her might take this idea and run with it because the sweet spinster interpretation of Jane Austen that still persists irritates me beyond measure.  No one who reads her letters could ever, surely, come away with this twee  view of her, and yet some readers still cling to the “Dear Aunt Jane ” interpretation of her life and works.

As to the portrait, Dr Byrne is certain it has the Austen nose and was convinced on first seeing it that it was Jane Austen. Dr Byrne will be presenting all her arguments in support of her theory  to us in a BBC2 documentary to be broadcast on Boxing Day ( 26th December) entitled , Jane Austen : The Unseen Portrait. I am intrigued  to see it.

She will have to do more than convince us and Austen scholars however, as to the authenticity of the portrait.  The National Portrait Gallery in London holds the only authenticated full-face image of Jane, as painted by her sister, Cassandra. Go here to see it, but I’m sure you are all familiar with this tiny watercolour. It was from this sketch, which was not thought to be very like Jane by her contemporaries, that the engraving included in James Austen Leigh’s memoir was “adapted”. Recently the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen has been the subject of some controversy about its disputed authenticity, a controversy which still continues. Go here to read about the portrait, and its rather sad history

The newly discovered picture will no doubt be subject to the same doubts and deliberations. It will be very interesting to see the documentary and hear the arguments for and against. In the meantime, do you think this could possibly be a new portrait of Jane? When do you think the portrait  was taken? And where? And by whom? Is it too accomplished to be Cassandra’s work? What church or cathedral tower does it show? Does it have the “Austen Nose” ? Many, many questions to be answered…. for the moment, I leave it to yourselves to determine.

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