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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2017 01:00PM

Jane Austen was never squeamish about money-making. In a November 1814 letter to her niece Fanny Knight (#114 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence), Austen discussed the likelihood that the recently published Mansfield Park would merit a second edition.


“People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy—which I cannot wonder at,” Austen wrote. “But tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.”


And so I suspect Austen would have been delighted to hear that last month’s commemoration of the bicentenary of her death reaped financial dividends for Basingstoke, the largest town in the vicinity of her birthplace in Hampshire, England.


The Basingstoke Observer noted this week that the town’s tourist traffic was up 80 percent in July, amid the festivities surrounding the Austen anniversary on the eighteenth of that month. Among the likely tourist draws: the public art trail of book-shaped benches with Austen themes; an exhibit at the local museum about the balls the youthful Austen attended in Basingstoke; and the unveiling of a life-size Austen statue in the town center.


Not surprisingly, town officials hope to keep the magic going even after this Austen anniversary year is over. They’re already encouraging visitors to take pictures with the Austen statue and post them online. Their proposed hashtag: #SelfieWithJane. Although I think #PewterForBasingstoke works, too.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 31 2017 01:00PM

Among the many, many activities taking place on the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death earlier this month was the unveiling of a new Janeite landmark: a life-size bronze of Austen, purportedly the first-ever statue of the author, portrayed striding through the center of Basingstoke, the nearest big town to her birthplace in Steventon.


Blog readers will recall that I was a bit skeptical about this project when it was first announced, since we don’t really know what Austen looked like. But I must say that, as far as I can judge from the images available online, I’m pleasantly surprised by the final product.


Of course, it’s still not possible to say whether the statue is a good likeness of Austen – we’ll never know that about any representation of her, since we don’t have any way of comparing images to the original. But the alert, observant gaze captured in sculptor Adam Roud’s bronze gives, to my mind, an appealing idea of Our Jane.


Roud’s Austen is not elevated on a pedestal; clad in pelisse and bonnet, she mingles with passersby at ground level, as if she’s on her way to do some shopping, or to return the book she’s carrying to a circulating library. I can already imagine the newest line in tourist photos: devoted Janeite walks companionably by Austen’s side, engrossed in conversation.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 23 2017 02:00PM

Nobody knows what Jane Austen looked like. Nobody will ever know what Jane Austen looked like. So, naturally, we’ll soon have a new image of Jane Austen, this time in bronze.


The English town of Basingstoke, not far from Austen’s birthplace of Steventon, plans to commemorate the July bicentenary of her death by placing a life-size statue in the town center. Last week, the sculptor from whom the Hampshire Cultural Trust commissioned the work, a local artist named Adam Roud, unveiled a preliminary model, known as a maquette.


The trust has turned to crowdfunding to raise the last £10,000 needed to complete the £100,000 project, and presumably they hoped that displaying the maquette would encourage Janeites around the world to pitch in to complete what is apparently the first-ever statue of our beloved author.


Will it work? Well, maybe. It’s hard to tell from the maquette -- which shows a slender woman in a pelisse and bonnet, captured mid-stride, with a book under her arm -- exactly what the statue’s face will look like. In other words, it’s hard to tell which of the various clashing images of Austen (see my previous blogs on this issue, here and here) Roud has selected for his "strong-willed and independent character.” And if you'd asked me -- unaccountably, no one did -- I would have recommended showing Austen at her writing desk, since she is famous for, you know, her writing.


Personally, I’m never satisfied with images of Austen: they never quite live up to the version in my head. But I can certainly imagine worse people to honor with a life-size bronze.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2015 01:00PM

Janeites never tire of speculating about Austen’s appearance (see here and here for examples), despite – or perhaps because of – the shortage of authenticated contemporary images of her face. But in a fascinating recent scholarly article, dress historian Hilary Davidson uses an item of clothing to derive useful information about Austen’s physical self.


As Davidson explains in the June 2015 issue of Costume, the journal of the UK’s Costume Society, Hampshire County Museum Services and Archives owns a brown silk pelisse dating from 1812-14 that certainly belonged to Austen’s family and may well have belonged to Austen herself. The pelisse is too fragile to display, let alone wear, so Davidson set out to recreate it as precisely as possible, meticulously measuring, photographing and researching in an effort to replicate everything from the stiffness of its oak-leaf-patterned sarsenet silk to the length of its hand stitches.


Judging from the photos accompanying the article, the result is a lovely garment in its own right. I leave it to those far handier with a needle than I am to sort through the technical material about pattern alignment and ruching and the like.


But for run-of-the-mill Janeites like me, the project’s greatest interest lies in the conclusions it permits about Jane Austen’s physicality. After trying the recreated garment on a range of modern women and girls, Davidson concluded that “the person for whom the pelisse was made had very narrow shoulders, slim hands, wrists and arms. . . . approximate measurements of a 31 to 33 inch bust, a 24 inch waist, and 33 to 34 inch hips, and was between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall, adding up to a present UK size four to six” (which roughly correlates to a US size two to four).


Family members described Austen as tall, and in Austen’s time, when women averaged five-two, a woman of five-six or five-eight would certainly qualify as such. Interestingly, Davidson also found that the pelisse was designed to fit a circular rib cage, rather than the elliptical one that most modern women possess. “We conjectured that the pelisse’s round shape had been created through the effects of wearing stays from childhood,” she writes.


Does it make a difference to know that Austen had a willowy hourglass figure shaped by years of corseting? I think it does: in a small way, these details bridge the yawning gap separating us from the person who wrote the books, returning the larger-than-life genius to the material context in which she lived. The iconic artist was also a woman who took up a particular amount of space in the world, a woman with narrow shoulders and slim hands that held her inspired pen.


Plans are afoot to make Davidson’s recreated pelisse pattern available commercially, so I won’t be surprised to see versions of it at some future JASNA meeting, probably adorning women of all shapes and sizes.


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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