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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 5 2017 01:00PM

I love the British press. When it comes to Jane Austen, they can manufacture a story out of the thinnest gossamer. Even recycled gossamer, as it turns out.


Last week, several UK news outlets (see here, here and here) were shocked – shocked! – to learn that the image of Jane Austen that will appear on the new £10 note, set for release in September, is somewhat controversial. The Austen portrait chosen by the Bank of England has been “air-brushed,” “prettified,” or “retouched,” they asserted, quoting recent Austen biographers Paula Byrne and Lucy Worsley.


Regular readers of my blog may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2013, when the bank unveiled its prototype of the Austen tenner, Byrne made this identical point about the chosen image. And she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every Janeite who pays attention noticed that the bank’s Austen image is based not on Cassandra Austen’s well-known sketch of her sister -- arguably the only portrait of Austen’s face made during her lifetime -- but on the gussied-up version of the Cassandra sketch commissioned by the family as a frontispiece to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 memoir of his famous aunt.


Why did the bank choose this particular image? As far as I know, they haven’t explained. Perhaps the National Portrait Gallery, where the Cassandra sketch hangs, was going to charge too much for the rights, as AustenBlog’s Maggie Sullivan suggested when I wrote about this topic before. (The NPG certainly charged me enough when I put the Cassandra sketch on my website!) Perhaps bank officials thought Cassandra’s peevish Austen conveys insufficient Great Writer Gravitas. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.


But really -- does it matter? I don’t think so, and here’s why:


It’s fair to object that the Austen on the note looks calmer and sweeter than the Cassandra sketch. It’s fair to object that a calm, sweet Austen doesn’t match your personal mental image of a novelist noted for her biting wit. But as I have pointed out before, it’s not fair to object that the Austen portrait doesn’t look like Jane Austen – because we don’t have any idea what Austen looked like. And therefore, as far as I’m concerned, one fictional image is as good as any other.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 6 2014 01:00PM

The other day, I ran across this attractive Austen-themed craft idea, and it got me thinking about that silhouette.


Now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, it pops up everywhere as a representation of Jane Austen, whose image is famously hard to pin down. (The Jane Austen Society of North America summarizes the issue here, and I’ve written about it here and here.)


Why do we think this silhouette represents Jane Austen? According to Princeton scholar Claudia L. Johnson’s excellent Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, it was “found in 1944 pasted into the second edition of Mansfield Park” and labeled “L’aimable Jane.” The pioneering Austen editor R.W. Chapman thought that closed the case: “Who would insert, in a copy of Mansfield Park, a portrait of any other Jane than its author?”


With apologies to the magisterial Chapman, that’s about as lame an argument as can be imagined. Although the NPG dates the silhouette to circa 1810-15 – early enough to be an accurate representation of Austen -- we have no idea where it came from or when it was pasted into the book. We don’t know who did the pasting or why s/he wrote in French.


Might it have been a Francophone Austen friend fashioning an impromptu author portrait out of a taken-from-life image? Absolutely.


Might it also have been a moony French teenager who found the silhouette at a flea market decades later and decided it looked exactly like her mental image of the author? Could be. No way of telling.


AustenBlog’s Margaret Sullivan, who shares my skepticism about the provenance and accuracy of the image, argues that “the silhouette is charming and we have no problem with it being a symbolic representation of the youthful Jane Austen.” Fair enough. Just so long as we remember that we don’t really know who’s in the picture.


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