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The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen:A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen, aye there’s the rub. Who was the real Jane Austen? I often think there are as many “Jane Austens” out there as there are fans of her works. We all seem to interpret her in our own fashion and, some would argue, in our own image. We think we know her by reading her novels, her letters( an extraordinary resource of information and opinion),the memories of her family, viewing her portrait on display at the National Portrait Gallery or when it adorns numerous souvenirs, visiting her house, seeing her possessions on show .But…do we? Many phrases in her novels and letters are so opaque and capable of various interpretations, do we ever really get to know her true opinions?  The sketches of her by her sister, Cassandra are clearly merely  that: sketches and only one of these show us her face. This is the crucial problem for biographers of Jane Austen.  Despite seemingly abundant primary and secondary sources, she still remains elusive. As Paula Bryne readily acknowledges:

Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of  Shakespeare -the one author whom, according to her admiring early reviewers, she stands second, and another figure whose image, like Austen’s, is a matter of fierce controversy. Austen left no intimate diaries, or revelatory notebooks.The vast majority of her letters are lost. Correspondence is infuriatingly lacking in so many key periods-residence in Bath, the two years leading up to her first appearance in print, the moment of her move from Egerton to Murray. Besides, the novels and the letters can never be fully pinned down. She keeps her face turned away from us

And though biographies of Jane Austen seem plentiful, it might astonish you to realise that the last full-length biography of Jane Austen was that written by Claire Tomalin, and it  was published 15 years ago. The information that has emerged about Jane Austen in the intervening years has been extensively covered in the press, the reports of both JASNA and the JAS  and the blogs. This book then may not hold many startlingly new pieces of information (For example, the point about Jane Austen’s use of Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings especially with regard to the character of Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park was a point I made in correspondence with Paula Byrne over six years ago), therefore while there may be not much new to discover there is much to dissect, and what we have here is a new interpretation of the facts, presented in a different style to the norm, and that, I think, must be its appeal.

How then is this book different? Paula Byrne quite disarmingly tells us ab initio, that she acknowledges that lives of Jane Austen are plentiful, and she refuses to write another  “womb to tomb” epistle.  So instead of a chronological tale of Jane’s life she has chosen, instead,  to write a series of essays.These essays ( or chapters) are inspired by Georgian objects,  some directly  associated with the author ;The Topaz Crosses, her writing slope,  the vellum notebooks containing her juvenilia etc. And with some that are not : A watercolour of Lyme, a Georgian bathing machine, a barouche.  Adopting this technique enables Paula Byrne to concentrate on differing aspects of Jane’s life in an almost novel way, and the essays are interesting, particularly if you like Paula Byrne’s style, which I do. I   fully enjoyed her previous books -on Jane Austen and the theatre, “Perdita” the life of the actress/poet Mary Robinson and “Mad World” the story of Evelyn Waugh and the Lygon family  of Madresfield.  This book is very readable, Paula Byrne has a lively and accessible style.

Most Janeites will want to read this book as a matter of course, to add to the existing numbers of biographies of our favourite author to be found on our groaning library shelves,  and I think they will enjoy it,  even if  they don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s conclusions for the fact before her. And while I enjoyed reading the book in the main, I do think some of the arguments made in it were taken slightly too far.   For example, I am not convinced by the arguments for her contention that in Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park we have a portrait of an homosexual, who may not, as a consequence, father an heir to the Mansfield estate, leaving the path clear for Fanny and Edmund to inherit.

The portrait of Miss Jane Austin which Paula Byrne owns and  which was the subject of a BBC documentary broadcast last year  has a small part to play in this new book in the chapter devoted to her life as a professional writer,and her  publisher, John Murray (The Royalty Cheque). Sadly, no new evidence about the portrait has emerged. No more light can be thrown on its troubled provenance and the true identity of its sitter remains elusive.

One of my biggest problems with this book relates to its design. We are given very good, indeed quite beautiful, full-colour photographs of each of the items which inspired each of the chapters( and on reflection, it might have been better to show us the whole of the balcony in the chapel at Stoneleigh, not just a single crimson cushion, given its importance to the composition of the Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park) But, in addition, we are also given simple  black and white line drawings of the items, each occupying a whole page. For me they added nothing to the look or to our interpretation of these items, and I feel it would have been better to have bound the relevant, individual colour plate alongside the corresponding chapter. For me these simplistic line drawings slightly diminished the impact of Paula Byrne’s prose, suggesting almost a children’s story-book approach.  I felt they broke the rhythm of reading the book. But then that may just be my reaction, brought about by  my intense interest in book illustration.

For readers new to Austen I feel that reading this book might not be so helpful, a “womb to tomb” account  of Jane Austen’s life  might suit their purposes better. They might therefore prefer to begin with a chronological account of Jane Austen’s life to ground themselves in the facts and the sequence of her life  before they avail themselves of this new book and its interesting interpretations.

Finally and very properly, I ought to tell you, in accordance with my Review Policy, that  the publishers very kindly sent me a review copy of this book, and I did not ,as is my usual practise, buy it myself.

An abridged version of Paula’s book, which I will be reviewing next weekend, can be heard on BBC Radio 4 this week as it is to be featured as this week’s Book of the Week

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The five episodes will be broadcast at 9.45 a.m every week day morning, and each will be  repeated the following morning at the late ( or very early!) time of 12.30 a.m.

The Writing Box

The Writing Box

As you already know, the book is not a chronological narrative of Jane Austen’s life but each chapter centres around objects associated with her life. The first episode, broadcast tomorrow morning is entitled The Writing Box. This and the subsequent four episodes will be read by Emma Fielding, and will also be available to “listen again ” to on the BBC iPlayer.

Harper Collins, Paula Byrne’s publishers have asked me if I would share this video with you. In it Paula Byrne tells us of her approach to her biography of Jane Austen, which will be published later this month.

In the video, she tells  how, in her new book, she reveals Jane Austen’s story not as a “cradle to grave” chronological narrative, but centres each chapter on an object that Jane Austen owned or which was mentioned in her novels.

As you all are fully aware, I am still not convinced that the portrait of “Jane Austin” which Paul Bryne brought to our attention last year, really  is of our most beloved author, and so I will be looking very closely at the chapter in which she deals with this  troublesome object!

However, as a taster, this video, filmed in the restored kitchen at Chawton cottage, certainly whets the appetite.

I will of course be reviewing the book later this month, and I do hope you will be back to read my thoughts on it.

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

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

This link to the Harper Collins site gives us the publication date for Paula Byrne’s new biography of Jane Austen. The hardback edition of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is to be published in Australia on the 2nd January, 2013, and in the UK on the 3rd January 2013. It will cost £25. An E-Text edition( for all formats presumably) will be on sale on the same dates.  There does not appear to be a US publication date as yet, but when it is known I will of course pass it on.

The publisher’s website gives us some idea as to the approach the book will be taking:

In this astonishing biography Paula Bryce, the renowned Austen scholar, thwarts all attempts to tame Jane’s reputation into one of dreary respectability and we meet the more likely personality behind such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Through her life and work, Jane emerges as deeply immersed in culture and politics, far ahead of her time in both her writerly ambition and desire for independence.

With new revelations, including Byrne’s discovery of a previously unknown contemporary portrait and the identity of Jane’s long-lost seaside love, this is a depiction of Austen that finally makes sense – an intelligent, subversive and thoroughly modern woman.

The  webpage for the Downloadable Audio Book , which is released on the 3rd Januaryhas this to add:

After this book, no longer can Austen be viewed as someone who did not engage with the great political events of her time. How many lovers of her work are aware that the Prince Regent kept a debauched household down the road from her village, that she was related by marriage to other major literary figures of the time such as the libertine Gothic novelist William Beckford and her favourite poet George Crabbe. The book will also identify her long lost seaside love as well as argue that her assumed ‘genteel’ sense of humour could also be savage, highly subversive irony.

I must admit , I am warily looking forward to reading this book. I have, as many of you already know, been researching Jane Austen and Politics for over ten years now, and I am really interested to have the opportunity to compare my notes and discoveries Dr.Byrne’s. As for the portrait, sadly, I still think it lacks the necessary provenance: perhaps this may change  when we can finally read the contents of the book.

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.


I thought you all might appreciate a post on the latest developments  regarding the  disputed portrait of Jane Austen now owned by Dr. Paula Byrne.

Recently there has been flurry of activity surrounding it, mostly published in the Times Literary Supplement.

The first article was by Paul Byrne, and this reiterated, in the main, the arguments she made for positively identifying the portrait as Jane Austen, and having been taken from life, in her BBC 2 programme, Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait. However, there are a few new points and you might like to hear them. Dr Byrne has  been investigating the view shown on the portrait and seems to have positively identified  it as the view of Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Bridge, which could be seen from one specific place: No.3 The Sanctuary. This house was occupied, in the early 19th century, by Edward Smedley, an Anglican priest who was also senior usher at Westminster School.  Dr.Byrne writes:

He was a man with literary interests, whose published poems included Transmigration (1778) and Erin: A geographical and descriptive poem (1810). He was married to Hannah (1754-1825), the daughter of George Bellas, a gentleman who worked as public notary in the High Court of Admiralty, which dealt with all shipping disputes, and who owned estates in the parish of Farnham on the border of Hampshire and Surrey. Their eldest son, also called Edward Smedley (1788-1836), had serious literary aspirations. He won the Seatonian Prize for English Verse at Cambridge in 1813 and from 1814 onwards he published with John Murray of Albemarle Street. His works with Jane Austen’s publisher ranged from The Death of Saul and Jonathan, a Poem (1814) and The Parson’s Choice, or, Town and Country: An Epistle (1821) to Sketches from Venetian History (1831).

Edward Smedley Junior therefore had the same publisher as Jane Austen, John Murray, and a slight family connection (see below). However, he also appears to have been a fan of Jane Austen’s works from the evidence of his published correspondence:

Pious, antiquarian and serious-minded, the Smedleys seem a far cry from Jane Austen. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover in “Poems by the late Rev. Edward Smedley, A.M.: with a selection from his correspondence and a memoir of his life “(1837) that Smedley Junior was an avid reader of her novels 

In addition Dr Byrne notes that a daughter of Anna Austen, Louisa, married the Reverend Septimus Bellas of Monk Sherborne in Hampshire, who was “a collateral relative of George Bellas”

Dr Byrne poses the question: do we know exactly what Jane Austen did when she was in London negotiating the terms for the publication of Emma? She poses the theory that Jane Austen may have known the Smedleys and may have visited them at No 3 ,The Sanctuary,where the portrait was made , and where it probably stayed in the Smedley family for some time, most probably in an album of drawings as there appears to be evidence of old glue on the reverse of the portrait. Smedley Junior had two daughters, who grew up to be novelists and Dr Byrne considers they were even influenced by Jane Austen:

They both grew up to become novelists strongly influenced by Jane Austen. Menella’s The Maiden Aunt (1849) begins in a very familiar-sounding style – “Emma, the youngest sister of Margaret Forde, married James Ferrars, a captain in the navy, and was left a widow, with two children” – while Elizabeth Anna’s The Runaway (1872) is manifestly a rewriting of Emma (with a mildly lesbian twist). Its publication was welcomed by the Sun newspaper with the announcement that “The future before her as a novelist is that of becoming the Miss Austin of her generation”.

One lead might be interesting, regarding the provenance of the portrait. It was sold to Mr Davids by the executrix of Sir John Forster, Barrister. The executrix, on his instructions, burnt all his papers when she had finished administering his estate. However, Paula Byrne has discovered that it was given to him by his nanny, Miss Helen Carruthers and she is investigating if there are any links between Miss Carruthers and the Smedley daughters. If anyone reading this can help her, please contact me and I’ll gladly send on any information.

She concluded thus:

Until we find another writer who was middle-aged in about 1815, who had a taste for long sleeves and a cap, who was tall and spare, straightbacked, with dark curly hair and facial features bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jane Austen’s brothers, we must keep open the possibility that this truly is a lifetime portrait of the woman who signed her own name on the back of John Murray’s royalty cheque for Emma as “Miss Jane Austin”.

This article prompted  two letters to the Editor. The first was from Roy Davids, the dealer who sold the portrait at auction to Dr Byrne , and was published in the TLS  on the  20th April, 2012. In his letter he defended his catalogue description of the portrait,thus:

Dr Byrne not entirely accurately had me cowering before the formidable Deirdre Le Faye (given the correspondence with that doyenne of the Austen industry which I shared with her). Vendors, it should be said, have an obligation towards a sobriety of tone, balance and judgement that need not constrain an enthusiastic new owner in quite the same way. But, of more consequence, Byrne tends to minimize what was said in the catalogue, which at least hinted at some of her more significant discoveries, when she writes: “Deterred by Le Faye, Davids did no further work on the portrait and it was accordingly given a low estimate in a sale of his literary manuscripts and portraits at Bonham’s in March 2011, where I bought it. The sale catalogue reproduced Le Faye’s opinion, but also noted that Henry Austen’s ‘Biographical Notice’ (1818) of his late sister did not include any specific details of her appearance, so it would have seemed an unlikely source for a portrait”.

A week later another letter was published  from Professor Richard Jenkyns ,who is, in fact, a descendant of Jane Austen’s eldest brother, James. He doubts that the portrait is of Jane Austen. His first objection is the setting:

Dr Byrne treats the picture like a photograph – as though Jane Austen had visited an unattested friend who chanced to live due west of the Abbey and someone snapped her there. But of course portraits were not like that; the backgrounds signify. The sitter is a Londoner: she is at home with her cat beside her. No one would take a likeness of a person with somebody else’s cat. She may have been wife, daughter or sister of a Rector of St Margaret’s or a Dean or Canon of Westminster, or perhaps a literary lady who wrote about Westminster. It seems improbable that this is a view from the window of someone who happened to live at just this spot, because the setting is not naturalistic: note the theatrical column and curtain. The artist could have sketched the churches on site but more likely used an engraving.

He also pointed out that the lady portrayed in the portrait is shown as having light-coloured eyes:

Jane Austen’s eyes were shown as brown  in Cassandra Austen’s sketch-the only authenticated  image of Jane Austen’s face- that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery:

She was described as having had hazel eyes by people who know her in life, particularly Caroline Austen, her niece. He also disputes that the nose depicted in the “Austin” portrait is an example of The Austen Nose.

The same point about the colour of the “Austin’s ” lady’s eyes is made in the Spring 2012 JASNA newsletter. Dr Andrew Norman who has written a biography of Jane Austen (Jane Austen, An Unrequited Love) wrote to the editor to make the same point about the colour of the sitters eyes: that these are pale and Jane Austen had dark coloured eyes.

On the 4th May, Dierdre Le Faye published her thoughts on the drawing.  Amongst other points, she doubts that Jane Austen would have wanted to be depicted as a writer, a point that has also been made by Claire Tomalin. She points to the lack of books in the portrait: if Jane Austen and wanted to be shown as a proudly, published author, where are her books? She also dismissed the face depicted as being of the real Jane Austen: it is too thin and long , and the eyes are of the wrong hue.

As to the dating of the portrait by the fashionable clothes on show, Le Faye points out that Jane and Cassandra Austen were constantly altering and updating their clothes due to their limited income:

The sitter’s high neck and long sleeves, with copious lace trimmings, suggest rich respectability. is clear from Jane’s letters that as she and Cassandra were far from wealthy, they were constantly altering their dresses by unpicking and dyeing them and adding different trimmings, until finally demoting them to be used as petticoats or linings. No dresses of theirs could ever be precisely dated.

She also comments on the profusion of jewellery on show:

The amount of jewellery worn by the sitter is far more than Jane Austen is known to have possessedEven if Jane had possessed all these items – and surely her brother Charles’s present of a topaz cross would have been shown? – it would be thoroughly uncomfortable to wear four rings while writing. This strongly suggests that the portrait was only meant to be symbolic, emphasizing the wealth of the sitter.

Here you can see the necklaces, numbering three in my counting:

And here you can see the profusion of rings:

She also dismisses the view of Westminster as having any connection with Jane Austen, and thinks the links with the Smedley family are only circumstantial.  She also notes the lack of any documentary evidence connecting Sir John Forster’s nanny with the portrait. The inscription “Miss Jane Austin” on the reverse of the portrait is commented upon:

The title on the verso, “Miss Jane Austin”, also turns out to be a red herring. As it is in ink, it was added at a later date – otherwise, the artist would have written the name in plumbago as s/he finished the drawing. Secondly, the word “Miss” is written in modern style; had it been written in Regency times the ligature of “MiFs” would have been used. Austen’s eldest nephew and nieces, who were taught to write between about 1795 and 1815, all used this ligature for a double “s” till their dying days in the 1870s and 80s. Anyone writing “Miss” was obviously born much later in the nineteenth century. 

Here is an example in Jane Austen’s own handwriting, which demonstrates how the word “Miss “would have been written by any contemporary of her:

This is  a copy of the later she wrote to her sister Cassandra on the 20th February 1807. You can clearly  see that she addressed Cassandra as “MiFs” Austen. The use of the word “Miss” in this form is clear evidence  that this inscription was added much later in the 19th century than in 1816.

She concludes:

As Byrne has not provided any incontrovertible documentary evidence to support her claims, the portrait, even if it does date from the early nineteenth century, cannot be accepted as a genuine representation of Jane Austen.

So..there you are. The controversy continues.

What do I make of it all?

I went to see the portrait recently, for it is currently on show at Jane Austen’s House Museum. What struck me on viewing it was indeed the large amount of jewellery that adorned the sitter. If this really is Jane Austen, where is that jewellery now? And why wasn’t Charles Austen’s quite magnificent topaz cross included, for this must have been Jane Austen’s most grand piece of personal jewellery, and if she was “showing herself to her best advantage” would she not have included that piece ? I do think on close examination that there is some form of pendant hanging from the first, shortest necklace. It is not clear, however, what form that pendant takes, and it may be another brooch, not attached to the chain at all.

The provenance of the portrait is still very uncertain, and seems to end in the 1980s with the death of Sir John Forster.  I am still not convinced that the view,which is very carefully delineated, has any connection with Jane Austen.

The presence of the cat still make no sense to me at all in relation to Jane Austen.

I still feel that this is, at the very best, a portrait of a real life Miss Austin, who had links with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s, which was made in the early years of the 19th century, but that it is not our Jane Austen. The attribution on the frame, which was made much later, seems to me to have been a case of wishful thinking by a later owner and, until there is any other strong documentary evidence to prove otherwise, I remain unconvinced ( not that my opinion really matters!)

If you would like to see it yourself, then do go to the Museum to see it: I do urge you to go if you can for it is interesting to see it “in the flesh”. I hadn’t realised how prominent the cat was. It certainly cannot be glossed over as it is an important part of the composition. But what does a cat have to do with Jane Austen? And will we ever find the answer? Fascinating.

Paula Byrne has just revealed that the church tower shown in the “new” portrait is not Westminster Abbey, as previously speculated, but is that of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster.

St Margaret’s was built as a church where the ordinarily people who lived near to Westminster Abbey could worship. The present building was begun in 1245 during the reign of Henry III but was rebuilt between 1486 and 1523. Since 1614 it has been the parish church of the Palace of Westminster, which is of course where the House of Commons and the House of Lords are situated.It is famous, among other things, for its grand society weddings.

This picture, above, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, shows the tower very clearly. It was  rebuilt by  the Hampshire born architect, John James, who was an assistant of Sir Christopher Wren, between the years 17343 to 1738. His most famous commission was St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, in smart, rich and elegant Mayfair, shown below. This image is from my collection of prints from the early nineteenth century part work, The Beauties of England and Wales:

This was, of course, where poor Mary Crawford dreamt of marrying Edmund Bertram in Chapter 43 of Mansfield Park.

Back to St Margaret’s, and I think this, visually, makes more sense. The two towers look very similar. What do you think?

The excellent Alison Flood of the Guardian wrote this very good summation of the situation in The Guardian online yesterday. She has some additional informative quotes from Paula Byrne and I thought you might like to read some of them:

“When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar,” Byrne told the Guardian. “The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”

Here are some of the silhouettes and portraits of Jane Austen’s family for you to compare the “Austen nose

George Austen, Jane’s father, above, and below, and this is him in silhouette:

Jane’s mother, Cassandra Austen nee Leigh, in silhouette:

And now her siblings: first James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother:

Edward Knight:

Henry Austen:

Frank Austen:

Charles Austen:

and a silhouette of Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister:

And here is a silhouette thought to be of Jane Austen- L’aimiable Jane”– found in a second edition of  Mansfield Park

Paula Byrne is also quoted regarding her forthcoming documentary about the portrait:

She approached the BBC, and together they put together a documentary on the portrait, working with various experts including art historians, fashion experts and forensic analysts on the picture’s background. “We approached it with an open mind,” said Byrne. “We tried to cover all leads, and in the end we put our findings to three top Jane Austen scholars, and two out of three thought it was her.”

The Jane Austen experts were Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University, Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton and Deirdre Le Faye. Kathryn Sutherland and Claudia Johnson both agreed the picture was of Jane Austen. As we suspected, Deirdre Le Faye thought otherwise. As Paula Byrne comments:

“She thinks it is an imaginary portrait. I did try so hard to find one single example of an imaginary portrait, but nobody could find one – they just don’t exist,” said Byrne. “But it’s great to have the debate – it opens up a very interesting question about who Jane Austen was and who we want her to be.”

Hmm. I’m not quite sure that is correct, and while no imaginary portrait might be extant from the period, we read yesterday that such things were being created by enthusiastic fans. Go here to see Deirdre Le Faye’s comments .

Paula Byrne also thinks the the portrait shows Jane Austen to be in London:

“This new picture first roots her in a London setting – by Westminster Abbey. And second, it presents her as a professional woman writer; there are pens on the table, a sheaf of paper. She seems to be a woman very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view.

This  is how Westminster Abbey appeared in the 1780s, depicted by Paul Sandby. You can enlarge these pictures for a closer look by clicking on them, remember.

The towers of the Abbey, below,  have similarities…

I think you will agree, to the tower depicted in the portrait.

Here’s a photograph I took last year for you to compare:

But why would Jane Austen be shown in London? Could one of Henry Austen’s circle of friends have drawn her? If so, why include an image of Westminster Abbey?  I think we have to await the broadcast of the documentary to discover exactly what the evidence is, aside from the presence of what would appear to be  the Austen nose  ;)

Personally, I’d like to see a report on the dating evidence for the vellum and the ink used to  inscribe the reverse of the portrait ( with an interesting misspelling of Jane Austen’s surname: “Miss Jane Austin”.) Other questions I’d like answered include why that name was misspelt? Why is she depicted as a writer, when no one in her immediate family ever depicted her so and she clearly did not want to be known in the wider world as a woman who earned money as a professional writer? Who could have created a portrait? If it was taken from life it must surely have been made by someone intimate with her and her family? In that case when was the misspelt inscription put on it, and why was it misspelt if it was drawn by an intimate? Why has it not come to light before  the 1980s and what research has been made into its life before that date? Too many questions to list here to be frank.

And another thought: if this is of Jane Austen does it really affect the way you think of her?How you perceive her and her genius? I have to say that , personally, it doesn’t affect my opinion of her at all. Her works- the juvenilia, the novels (completed and unfinished) and her letters-  are more important to me in informing how I think about her than any of these images. I really don’t need another sadly amateur portrait to influence this.  If a fashionable less frumpy image is required of her, and I may quickly insert that for me it is not, let us not forget that there may be one in existence already- but it’s attribution is hotly contested by the National Portrait Gallery and other experts. This is James Stanier Clarke’s little water colour of a fashionably dressed woman and it is thought by some to be Jane Austen visiting him at Carlton House, the Prince of Wales’ London residence:

Stanier Clarke was, of course, the Prince of Wales’ librarian who so infuriated Jane Austen with his hints to her as to how a novel should be written.

However, I will own that I do wish a great professional artist could have depicted her in adult hood. Someone like Zoffany, Hoppner or even Thomas Lawrence, whom we know to have been an admirer of her talent. Now, that really would be something to shout about. For these artists would have given us not only a good representation of her features, but would also have captured, surely, something of her vivacity, her intelligence, which sadly to my eye, these amateur portraits do not. That really  would be a fantastic discovery don’t you think?

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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