Jane Austen?

January 4 2012

Image of Jane Austen?

Picture: Guardian/Dr Paula Byrne

A number of readers have asked what I thought of the 'Jane Austen' drawing which featured in a BBC2 programme on boxing day. It was an intriguing bit of telly. But I wasn't wholly convinced by the claims made for the drawing being Jane the novelist. Here's why;

  • There is no evidence for the sitter being Jane outside the drawing itself. That is, there are no documentary references to it, and no enticing hints of provenance.
  • We have no idea who made the drawing, and thus whether they can be connected to Jane. 
  • The main clue in the drawing, the very obviously placed background showing Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's, Westminster, bears no relation to anything in Jane's life. [update, new evidence means this is incorrect, see above post]
  • The clothing argument, that a dress worn by Jane revealed similar dimensions to the sitter, is flawed. The early provenance of the dress used in the programme is far from certain - it may well not be Jane's. Here's the early history of the dress from Hampshire County Council's website:

The pelisse was given to Hampshire Museums Service in 1993. The donors' great, great, great grandfather was Jane Austen's elder brother James (1765-1819), who got it from their grandmother, who had received it from Eleanor Steele (nee Glubbe, b1857). She had visited the Knight family as a young lady of eighteen, and was given the dress by Miss Marianne Knight, sister of Captain John Knight, around 1875. At the age of seventy three she eventually felt that the pelisse should return to the Austen family, and sent it to James's great granddaughter Mrs Winifred Jenkyns. Her note accompanying the parcel reads: "I missed the little coat for a long time but lately it turned up. I cannot remember if it was 'Jane's' but it seems probable"

  • The 'isn't her nose similar to her those of her brothers' argument doesn't hold water, sadly. One cannot rely on those kind of claims when identifying sitters in portraits, especially when comparing a rubbed drawing by an amateur. The sequence in the programme where a modern forensic expert was used to give his view on the sitter in the drawing was a touch misleading. If only it really was that easy to identify sitters. Furthermore, the programme didn't deal convincingly with the written description from Jane's nephew that her nose was 'small' - the nose in the drawing is enormous - and nor did the programme touch on the possible Jane Austen silhouette, also in the NPG, which, if genuine, would be our best guide to Jane's nose. The programme omitted to discuss the nose of Jane's sister, Cassandra, which apears beautifully rendered in a silhouette, and is not like the large thing seen in the drawing of 'Jane'. 
  • The 'the cat denotes spinsterhood' argument. Well, perhaps. But a pet in a portrait could mean just about anything, if you want it to. And would an amateur artist be familiar with the cat-as-indicator-of-spinsterhood tradition, if it existed? And would Jane herself want to be defined as a spinster, even in her thirties? Incidentally, the sitter was wearing a lot of jewellery; there are lines of pearls in the cap, apparently three necklaces, a brooch at her waist, and a number of rings - all of which may not accord well with our idea of a relatively poor spinster up from the country. 
  • The best evidence for the drawing remains the 'Miss Jane Austin' inscription on the back. I thought the programme dealt well with the Austen/Austin argument. But I would liked to have seen some more rigorous analysis of the inscription; what type of script was it, and when was it added? If, for example, the word 'Miss' had been spelt with an old-fashioned long first 's' (which looked like an 'f', so 'Mifs'), as Jane herself used, then that would have suggested the inscription was more likely to be nice and early. I know the long 's' was falling out of use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it still would have been good to have some discussion on the handwriting used in the inscription, which to my unexpert eye looked later than the drawing.
  • Finally, no effort was made to preclude any other 'Jane Austins' out there. I know this is a tangential argument, but a quick look through Family Search highlights what a common name 'Jane Austin' was in early 18thC England (and I presume still is!). It seems there are even some 'Jane Austins' who got married in Westminster at about the time the drawing could have been made.  

So, on balance, the evidence for the identification of this anonymous and not particularly good drawing seems to me to be a little thin. I note that the National Portrait Gallery curators were conspicuous by their absence. But we certainly can't rule it out - and hopefully more research and analysis will help us to solve the mystery. In the meantime, I'll stick with Cassandra Austen's undisputed drawing of Jane. 

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