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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Another side of Austen

Jane Austen’s silhouette – or, at least, a silhouette that has come to be identified with her – is ubiquitous. Despite its uncertain provenance, the image, owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London, is a staple of Austen-themed mugs, tote bags, magnets, and even cookware.

But now the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation has commissioned a new Austen silhouette, this one prepared by a “celebrity silhouette artist” who based his work on “a forensically accurate wax work reconstruction.” And this souped-up, super-official silhouette can be yours on a bookplate, for the low, low price of $10.50!

I shouldn’t mock. The silhouette artist in question, Charles Burns, is legitimately amazing: I saw his work up close last year, when he came to a holiday party thrown by my local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America and, over Zoom, cut beautifully precise silhouettes of the attendees in just a minute or two each. The silhouette he’s made for the new bookplate looks lovely. And the literacy foundation, launched by a collateral Austen descendant, seems to be a bona fide good cause, a volunteer-run non-profit working to bring books to impoverished children in India and Australia.

As regular blog readers know, however, I am inherently suspicious of efforts to confer authenticity on any contemporary Austen image, including “a forensically accurate wax work reconstruction” (presumably this one). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We don’t know what Jane Austen looked like, and therefore we are never going to be able to judge the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of any image of her, no matter how gifted the artist or extensive the forensic research.

That said, if you order the bookplate by Thursday, you’ll be entered in a drawing for an online silhouette session with Burns. And since this time he’ll be working from life, you can be sure that the results will be accurate.

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