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Last night Jane Austen made an appearance in the first of Ian Hislop’s three-part essay on that interesting phenomenon: The Stiff Upper Lip. This is a series of three programmes chronicling an Emotional History of England, and which was broadcast by BBC 2.

The theme of the programmes is of a chronological history of the British and their emotions. In last night’s episode – Emergence– we were taken on a journey from medieval times(when we were known, both men and women, as ready to kiss each other and strangers at the drop of a hat) to the situation just after Waterloo, when all such soppy displays had ended. Ian Hislop’s argument was that the stereotypically British virtues of reticence and stoicism only began to assert themselves during this period: the stiff upper lip ( an American expression, apparently) had its beginnings as a reaction against the excesses of the French revolution and in our subsequent wars with Napoleon.  After Waterloo, the emotional excesses of the 18th century men of sentiment, as personified by the hero of Henry Mackenzie’s novel, The Man of Feeling (1771) were then not quite the thing. Nelson, the Nation’s hero after his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was a far more openly emotional man than the Duke of Wellington. Between Trafalgar  and Waterloo, ten years later, the nation’s emotions had become far more reserved. And of course Jane Austen’s novels, with their emotionally restrained heroes and heroines demonstrates  this sea-change in our emotional life rather well…

On a visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton, Ian Hislop gave us some Austenian examples of British Reserve and that all important attribute, Politeness, at its best:

The meeting of George and John Knightley in Chapter 12  of Emma, was given as one of the prime examples of the new, restrained attitude that was then acceptable in the early years of the 19th century. Here, while the reception the brothers gave to each other may appear outwardly polite and indifferent, inwardly their mutual  love  and affection is acknowledged . We know that, despite this emotionally cool meeting, they would move heaven and each to help each other.

The discussion continued with Louise West ,who is the Curator of the Jane Austen’s House Museum. They argued that Austen produced a new type of romantic hero: the reserved, upright man, who only confesses his feelings of deepest love after a novel full of incident. This is very true of Darcy, Wentworth George Knightley and Edward Ferrers. It was posited that the most guarded of Jane Austen’s characters often display the deepest, most genuine feelings. Of the heroines, only Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility  gives way to excesses of sentiment, but even she is more sedate, reserved and sensible by the end of the novel. She has reformed to the state of  emotional restraint thought desirable by  late Georgian society.

I think we can all agree that Jane Austen respected rational beings of both sexes, to borrow as she did Mary Wollstonecraft’s phrase, and the argument that her novels are testament to her society’s admiration for certain aspects of The Stiff Upper Lip, and are, moreover, good examples of the era when an excess of sentiment was seen as something to be avoided, is an interesting one.

Two points did annoy me. That old chestnut, that Jane Austen never wrote about politics or  incidents in the wider world- the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Abolition etc etc- reared its ugly head yet again, in a reference to a letter written by Winston Churchill upon having had Pride and Prejudice read to him while he was convalescing from illness in 1943:

Does this view really still prevail? Really? Not in my opinion or on my website. And to be frank, I really did not see the point of its inclusion here. Perhaps I missed something crucial. And I did not appreciate the scenes in the Museum’s gift shop, where Ian Hislop wonders,  rather disapprovingly in my view, what Jane Austen’s reaction to the stock, in particular the “I Heart Darcy bookmarks” might be. I think she might be glad that the shop is contributing funds to the privately run Museum so that it can continue to celebrate her life and works….but then that’s just me being pragmatic, and not a little annoyed.

However, on the whole this was an interesting programme to watch, with plenty for those of us interested in the late 18th/early 19th century to ponder. You can go here to its website to see some clips and here to the BBC iPlayer to view the whole of Episode Number 1

(….and yes,we will get back to the Lefroys in my next posting!)

The Rice Portrait,  below, which purports to be of a young Jane Austen, has been making quite a stir this week.

The “Rice Portrait”, which purports to show Jane Austen as a child.

The painting,which is now owned by the Rice family, has been the subject of much debate  since it came to public attention in the late 19th century. The Rice family claim that the painting was made  during a visit that Jane Austen’s family made to the home of Jane’s great-uncle Francis Austen, in Sevenoaks in Kent during 1789.  Jane was 13 when the visit took place. Their story of the origins of the portrait  is that Francis Austen was very taken with young Jane and, while she was staying with him in Kent,  commissioned Ozias Humphrey, an artist he had previously commissioned, to capture her on that visit.

The portrait remained with the Kent Austens  until 1817 when it was then given by Francis Austen’s grandson, Colonel Thomas Austen, to a close friend, Thomas Harding-Newman as a wedding present. The present was apparently made to him because his bride, Elizabeth Hall, was reported to be a keen admirer of Jane Austen’s books. Thomas Harding-Newman is apparently the person who decided this portrait was by Johan Zoffany, and this misattribution caused problems for the Rice family when they were trying to authenticate it, and since the 1940s  its authenticity has been disputed.

Many art, fashion and Austen experts, including those at the National Portrait Gallery, who have the only authenticated image of Jane Austen taken in her lifetime in their collection, have raised objections to this painting, mainly on the grounds that the style of the girl’s dress, hair and the general composition would appear to date the painting to after 1800, when Jane would have been in her 20s, and therefore would have been much older than the girl depicted.

However, the latest news about the portrait is that recent digital analysis of photographs of the painting which date from 1910, and which were part of the Heinz Collection in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection from the 1950s,  have been examined. They appear to show that the portrait has some writing on its surface. Note, as I understand the situation,  the painting has been cleaned extensively over the years, and it is virtually impossible to see this new-found writing on the portrait as it stands.The photographs, taken by Emery Walker in 1910 are the best indication we have of the paintings original state.  The digital analysis has interestingly revealed the following, as reported by The Guardian journalist, Ed Butler:

In the top-right corner of a reproduction of a photograph of the portrait taken before the painting was restored, the name “Jane Austen” is visible. Next to it is revealed in two places the name “Ozias Humphry” – an established portrait painter of the period. He was a member of the Royal Academy, and a friend of other better-known artists of the day, such as Gainsborough and Romney. The words have been digitally enhanced using photographic tools and methods that have been independently validated by photographic expert Stephen Cole of Acume Forensics in Leeds, who has spent more than 20 years analysing photographic evidence in criminal cases. Art critic Angus Stewart, a former curator of an exhibition dedicated to Jane Austen, has seen the evidence and is impressed. “To have all these words revealed on the canvas is very, very strong. I think you’d be flying in the face of reason to deny this,” he said ( See: The Guardian, 8th June, 2012)

If you go here to the Rice family’s own website about the painting you can see the photographs of the writing on the surface of the painting. They were initially discovered by a reader of their website, which prompted the Rice family to investigate further. They are also currently  investigating some more writings, as their website reveals.

Now, of course,  the writing could have been put on the canvas by someone other that Ozias Humphry  or even by a later owner, but as the painting was believed, from around 1818, to have been by the more prestigious artist, Johann Zoffany, it is argued, and quite persuasively it seems to me, that the writing must have been put there during or shortly after Jane’s lifetime but before the unfortunate misattribution was made by Harding-Newman. If the writing was added to the painting  after 1817,  the name which would appear would surely have been of the artist who was then thought to have painted it ; that is,  Zoffany. The fact that the painting is inscribed with Humphry’s name points to it having been inscribed in the late 18th century and not after. An additional reason for the attribution to Humphry being correct is that Humphry went blind in 1797 and , naturally, stopped painting. It  seems now, despite the evidence of the hair, the costume and the composition, very unlikely that the painting was created in the early 19th century. The dates revealed by the digital analysis do support the Rice family arguments regarding the origins and descent of the painting, which they have been making for a very long time.

In an effort to try to establish exactly what has gone on regarding this and the other disputed “portrait ” of Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne, and which is currently on show at the Jane Austen House Museum, see below,

The disputed portrait which may be Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne, and currently on show at the Jane Austen House Museum

a letter was published in The Guardian yesterday, which was signed by Louise West,Curator of the Museum, Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Henrietta Forster and Paula Byrne. It proposed that a debate about both this and the Rice portrait ought to take place at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  Here is the text of their letter:

We note with interest the latest findings of the champions of the so-called Rice portrait, putatively of a young Jane Austen (A portrait of the artist as a young girl?, 9 June). In view of their renewed confidence in the attribution as to painter and sitter, we very much hope that the owners will support us in calling for an open discussion and exhibition of all the contenders for “portrait of Jane Austen”. We are planning a debate, to be hosted by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and extend an invitation to all interested parties.

Good idea. I do hope that some art historians appear to give their thoughts. And let’s hope that, as a result, we will finally have some clarity  about the person(s) portrayed in these portraits( though I confess I am still very unconvinced by the portrait said to be of Jane Austen as an older woman!)

Since I read this article last Saturday, I’ve been reading the archive of the Times Literary Supplement on this topic.  For years the Rice portrait has been the subject of much debate within its pages, and, again, I confess  I have been really quite shocked by the tone of the arguments made regarding the authenticity of the portrait. Bad tempered and somewhat personal in nature, I really don’t think this has been the experts finest hour. What is it about these portraits that makes everyone so passionate? A desire to have a professional image of Jane Austen? A fortune? A desire to be correct? A combination of all three? *shakes head sadly*

It would seem  to me that the Rice portrait now has many claims to authenticity, particularly now that these previously undiscovered markings have been found, which confirm the original story given by the Rice family. I send them my congratulations, which I hope are not premature. My friend, Jane Odiwe is to be congratulated too, for she has been certain of the portrait’s authenticity for some time.

Yet again, this is just part of a continuing saga, and  I hope to be able to report back to you about it in due course. Positively, I hope.


Today I have something really special to offer you, an interview with Louise West, who has recently been appointed as the Curator of the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton. She has succeeded the redoubtable and rather wonderful Mr Tom Carpenter in the role and was the Education Officer at the Museum for many years prior to this appointment.

A few weeks ago I asked Louise if she would give us an interview, for I knew you would like to get to know her a little better, especially as she is the person who is now caring for Jane Austen’s very important Chawton Home. Amazingly, she agreed to do it….

So, here it is. I do hope you find it interesting.

**************************************

Louise, you have worked at the Jane Austen’s House Museum for some years, first as the education officer and now as the curator, can you tell us when and how you first become interested in Jane Austen?

I was aware of her from a very young age and in my bedroom there was a copy of Pride and Prejudice with illustrations by Brock which my mother had received as a school prize in the 1930’s.  I first read beyond Chapter One when I was 15 (tried at 12 and got nowhere) and have been hooked ever since.

This is the question most Janeites hate, because it is almost unanswerable, but I’ll ask it anyway: which is your favourite Jane Austen novel and why?

Emma.  It was my A level text so I knew it in detail from early on but it still surprises me.  It’s also cheered my through sad times in my life.

Many people associate Bath with Jane Austen and are not aware of the treasures to find at Chawton. They often think it is difficult to access (most emphatically, it is not!) Yet too many people visiting the museum might endanger it’s unique and very special atmosphere. This is obviously a delicate balance to maintain, and I’d like to know what is your long-term vision for the museum, and your thoughts on attracting visitors to the house.

Let me say first of all that I can understand why people associate Bath with Jane Austen.  It is after all a Regency town and includes places specifically included in her novels.  However, I do want people in this country and worldwide to associate Chawton and Hampshire in their mind with Jane Austen, because this was her home county and Chawton Cottage (now Jane Austen’s House Museum) was actual home.  More importantly it’s the home where she did the majority of her writing – the reason for her fame!

The numbers game is tricky but I would confidently say that we are nowhere near breaking point.  There are times that are particularly busy in the summer but then there is always the garden to explore.  The winter months of November, December, February and March can be quite quiet and visitors can enjoy the special atmosphere of the house sometimes on their own.

We do want to encourage repeat visits and we are lucky that over the next few years we have the bicentenaries of all the novels to celebrate.

The next seven years are very exciting ones for Janeites with so many important bi-centenaries on the calendar, culminating in 2017 with the bicentenary of Jane Austen death.  How will the museum be celebrating this year’s 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility?

In many ways.  All our events this year are themed around Sense and Sensibility, and these will include concerts, talks and relevant displays. (Go here to see more details of the events.) We will be having regular readings from the novel by our staff and volunteers who have been helped by our wonderful patron, Elizabeth Garvie. (Whom you will all recognize in her photograph, below, for she is a general Janeite favourite, her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in the 1981 production of Pride and Prejudice produced by the BBC is considered one of the best, and her stage performances in A Celebration of Jane Austen, with her late husband, Anton Rogers and now with Robert Powell, are acclaimed- jfw)

May I ask about the new edition of about the new edition of Sense and Sensibility that the Jane Austen House Museum is publishing this year? Is this going to be the first of a series of all six of the novels? Can you let us have some details about the book: for example, will it be published in hardback and paperback format, will it be annotated and will it be illustrated? And can we order it from the Museum shop?

We are very excited about this venture as you can imagine – publishing Jane’s first novel 200 years after it was first published from this very house. Our aim at this stage is certainly to publish all 6 novels in the same format over the next few years. It will be a hardback copy with covers very similar to the original board ones, but it will be in one volume and not three.  As with the original it will not be annotated or illustrated, but, it will have a foreword by our patron, Professor Kathryn Sutherland, renowned Austen scholar, from Oxford University.  Yes, you will be able to order it from the museum shop.

The newly refurbished kitchen has been beautifully renovated, and is a wonderfully inviting space. Do you have any plans to use it for public events, and do you plan to use it in conjunction with Martha Lloyd’s amazing household book?

We already use the kitchen for certain events.  We have held herb workshops in there and we often use it for intimate sessions with small groups.  It’s also a very nice venue for refreshments at evening events.  We do have plans to use the recipe book in new and creative ways, but these are still in development.  Watch this space!

**********************************************

This all sounds rather exciting, intriguing and yet comforting at the same time. It is wonderful to note that Jane Austen’s house is in such good and capable hands, and I do look forward to the development of Chawton under Louise’s tenure very much. I should like to thank her for her time and for her  gracious answers to my rudimentary questions, and I hope many of you will visit Louise at the Museum.

 

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