By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 14 2014 01:00PM
The biggest news in the Janeite world last week was the unveiling of a new waxwork of Our Jane at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. And here she is:
The statue purports to be a super-duper, forensically and historically accurate image of Austen, whose face famously appears in only one authenticated portrait made during her lifetime. (You can see that amateur sketch, by Austen’s sister, Cassandra, on my web site here.)
The online chatter among Janeites is mixed: some seem to find the waxwork Austen appealing, while others think her dress is too low-cut, her hairstyle too modern (“A woman of JA's day would not have worn her hair loosely falling in her eyes like a basset hound,” Diana Birchall wrote on the Janeites Yahoo! Group) and her facial expression too bland.
As I’ve suggested before, these debates over the “best” image of Austen leave me cold. Yes, historically minded Janeites can make a good case for the accuracy, or not, of this hairstyle or that gown, but we can’t send a Nikon-wielding Janeite back to 1814 to get an accurate image of Austen’s face. And short of that, the thing we most care about – when you looked at her, what kind of person did you see looking back at you? – is pure speculation.
We can argue over whether the waxwork matches the written descriptions offered by Austen’s family members -- does the new statue have the “full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed” described by Austen’s nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh in his 1870 memoir? – but we can’t really be sure what he meant by “small” and “full,” anyway. Could someone with a small nose have looked like Henry Austen, the brother Jane was said to most resemble? (Check out images of Henry and the other brothers in this article.) What does it mean, exactly, for someone to look like a sibling of a different sex? Does the resemblance lie in a particular cluster of features, or in something less tangible?
When we argue over whether a contemporary painting or photograph is an accurate rendition of its subject, we’re comparing the image to the original. But when we argue over the quality of an image of Jane Austen, we have no original to compare it to.
Ultimately, then, we’re arguing over whether a particular image matches our own mental picture of Jane Austen, which is to say our own interpretation of Austen extrapolated from our study of her life and works. This is an interesting debate to have, but it’s not an argument that a waxwork will ever be able to settle.
And for what it's worth: this particular waxen face is pretty enough, but it lacks a certain subversive mischief that Jane Austen's face -- my Jane Austen's face -- definitely had.
Well said. And I hereby propose that all further speculation (in all media, especially wax) about what JA actually looked like should be dropped. We can't know, we'll never know, and it's not half as important as what she wrote.
That said, I think I'll go wax wroth for a while--or let Roth wax me. (Remember Groucho Marx's line in Horsefeathers when someone says, "The Dean is waxing wroth"? Groucho replies, "Let Roth wax him for a while." I was irresistibly reminded of this by the heading to this post.)
LOL. Yes, well, coming up with clever headlines is an art I haven't yet mastered! As for media speculation about JA's true appearance, I fear this will never end. But one can try. . .