Jane Austen’s (family) Portraits

December 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm (books, jane austen, portraits and paintings) (, , , , , )


In a follow-up to the news of the Sotheby’s sale, I’ve pulled out the one source I have that discusses this very portrait’s “reason for being”: Deirdre Le Faye’s (2nd ed.) Jane Austen: A Family Record.

Near the end of the book, the genesis of James Edward Austen Leigh’s biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, is treated. It is a rather disappointing story, from the view of the Memoir‘s author: his two sisters were most giving and generous. However, his eldest sister, the former Anna Austen [born 1793] now long the widowed Mrs Lefroy, declared how little she remembered! But then, after sitting down with her pen and paper and exercising her recollections, she did come up with a highly entertaining narrative. Hard to be harsh with Anna: how many of us will recall people from our past, sixty years later?

Edward’s younger sister Caroline Mary Craven Austen [born 1805] also supplied her memories for her brother to incorporate as he wished. Her piece was later published as My Aunt Jane Austen.

Other sources were, of course, attempted. According to Le Faye, “Rather surprisingly, it seems that even at this late date Anna [Lefroy] still did not know that Cassandra had kept Jane’s letters and distributed some of them to the younger nieces, for she wrote to her brother [James Edward Austen Leigh, born 1798]: ‘The occasional correspondence between the Sisters when apart from each other would as a matter of course be destroyed by the Survivor — I can fancy what the indignation of Aunt Cassa. would have been at the mere idea of its being read and commented upon by any of us….’”

Anna also wrote to her brother, “‘You must have it in your own power to write something; & Caroline, though her recollections cannot go as far back even as your’s, is, I know acquainted with some particulars… [they] were communicated to her by the best of then living Authorities, Aunt Cassandra — There may be other sources of information, if we could get at them — Letters may have been preserved’.”

“As far as letters held by other branches of the family were concerned James Edward’s approaches met with only limited success.” Le Faye then details that one of Frank Austen’s son’s “knew that no letter to Henry had been kept”, and that Frank’s daughter Fanny Sophia “had destroyed [Jane's letters to Frank], following his death in 1865, without consulting anyone else beforehand.” Martha Lloyd Austen’s (Lady Austen) letters had come into Frank’s hands, and “it was one of these that he sent to the Quincy family in 1852 — but how many more of them may have been in his possession at that date is unknown.”

Fanny Sophia was willing to let Edward look at the few letters she had retained, “but only on the condition that he did not publish any”. He evidently did not, therefore, take her up on the offer.

Then there comes the tale of Lady Knatchbull, the former Fanny Knight. “She was now drifting into querulous senility and could not — perhaps would not — remember where she had put her letters from Jane.” These, which Edward did not live to see published, came out in 1884 in the so-called Brabourne edition (vol. 1) [other works by Brabourne, including vol. 2 of Jane Austen's letters, at Internet Archive].

Certainly, Edward Austen had done the best any biographer can try to do, in amassing all the known “primary materials”.

So what of the portraits?!?

“After these disappointments, the help which James Edward received from Cassy Esten, Charles’s eldest daughter, must have been particularly welcome. She allowed him to use those of Jane’s letters which she had inherited in 1845, and it was she who proffered the two simple watercolour sketches by Cassandra…” These two being the “Sketch” (now at the National Portrait Gallery” and the “Bonnet Portrait”, the view of Austen, sitting out-of-doors, where her face is obscured by her bonnet. “Anna thought there was ‘a good deal of resemblance’ in the figure of the latter, but that the former was ‘so hideously unlike’.”

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Henry had admitted “in 1832 when Bentley wanted a likeness [of Jane Austen] for his new edition of the novels” that “no professional artist has ever painted Jane’s portrait at any time in her life”. {But did Henry know “all” about his sister?}

“James Edward commissioned a local artist, James Andrews of Maidenhead, to redraw the Cassandra-portrait, working under the superintendence of himself and his sisters. They considered his version good enough to appear in the Memoir, and a stipple vignette was steel-engraved from this watercolour to use as the frontispiece.”

austen-watercolor

“Those members of the family who had known Jane best were on the whole rather disappointed by the frontispiece. Casey Esten [born in 1808] wrote ‘I think the portrait is very much superior to any thing that could have been expected from the sketch it was taken from. — It is a very pleasing, sweet face, — tho’, I confess, to not thinking it much like the original; – but that the public will not be able to detect…’  Caroline was equally lukewarm: ‘The portrait is better than I expected — as considering its early date, and that it has lately passed through the hands of painter and engraver – I did not reckon upon finding any likeness — but there is a look which I recognise as hers — and though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasant countenance it is so far a truth - & I am not dissatisfied with it.’

NPG D1007; Jane Austen after Cassandra Austen

Lizzy Rice [born 1800], now a stately matriarch, wrote from Kent to James Edward: ‘I remember her so well & loved her so much & her books always were and always will be my delight … how well the portrait has been lithographed I think it very like only the eyes are too large, not for beauty but for likeness, I suppose making them so was Aunt Cassandra’s tribute of affection…’.”

Caroline agreed with the comment about the portrait’s eyes: “‘they are larger than the truth: that is, rounder, & more open – I am very glad she sees a general likeness tho’—’.”

Mrs Beckford, the former Charlotte Maria Middleton, a Chawton neighbor, “considered that: ‘Jane’s likeness is hardly what I remember  there is a look, & that is all…’.” Le Faye records no comments – and perhaps none exist, from Emma or Edward Austen Leigh, regarding the portraits.

2 Comments

  1. Calista said,

    Hello;

    Great article.

    Speaking of Austen’s portraits and looks got me thinking about Mary in Pride and Prejudice.I would describe Mary as the 21st century geek. Ignorant people make fun of such people but the geeks rules the world.

    Mary would not have had such a chance given the time period, she may lack social refinement, beauty and know how to wow men, but she is got the brains and that’s what matters. I’d rather have a Mary for a friend than a Mrs. Bennet, Lydia or Kitty.

  2. Janeite Kelly said,

    You’ve given GREAT food for thought about this well-read novel. The Smiths, in a brief mention in a letter, definitely singled out Mary Bennet and also Mr Collins! It’s so hard, having seen Mary in films to read with the feelings of the original audience. She obviously had something attractive to them, and your comments makes a lot of sense for those of us living 200 years later.

    k

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 206 other followers

%d bloggers like this: