Our image of the great author Jane Austen derives visually from just two portraits — an 1810 sketch rendered by Austen's sister Cassandra and an 1870 painting adapted therefrom. According to Austen scholar Dr. Paula Byrne, however, we may now have a third, a graphite on vellum drawing depicting a woman with pen and paper in hand and an intelligent, confident countenance — a presentation notably “different” from the “sentimentalized Victorian view” typical to accepted Austen portraiture.
The portrait, said Byrne in an interview with the Guardian, had for years belonged to a private collector. The auctioneers who sold it to Byrne's husband, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, called it “an imaginary portrait” of Austen — a designation that struck Byrne as preposterous.
“The idea that it was an imaginary portrait — that seemed to me to be a crazy theory,' Byrne said. “That genre doesn’t exist …”
On seeing it, Byrne, whose biography of Austen is set to be published in 2013, “instantly had a visceral reaction to it.”
“I thought it looks like her family. I recognized the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar,” she said. “[T]his looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”
Crucially, the painting dates to 1815 (Austen lived from 1775 to 1817). Austen, Byrne says, didn't become famous until the 1870s. “Why would someone have wanted to draw her from their imagination, when she was not popular at that time?” Byrne wondered.
Byrne contacted the BBC, which agreed to produce a documentary on the drawing, assembling various scholars and forensic experts who each in turn examined the work for clues as to its history.
“We approached it with an open mind,” Byrne told the Guardian. “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 portrait, if it is indeed a drawing of Austen, is notable not only for the person it depicts but for the manner of its depiction. “The previous portrait is a very sentimentalized Victorian view of ‘Aunt Jane’, someone who played spillikins, who just lurked in the shadows with her scribbling,” Byrne said. “But it seems to me that it’s very clear from her letters that Jane Austen took great pride in her writing, that she was desperate to be taken seriously.”
“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.”