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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Picturing Austen

Pity the poor Bank of England. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Back in July, when the Bank announced plans to feature Jane Austen on the 10-pound note beginning in 2017, it must have seemed an uncontroversial choice, a safe way to satisfy the feminists campaigning to get a woman onto the currency. Then came the Twitter kerfuffle – Neanderthals using social media to threaten the leader of that feminist campaign with rape and murder – and Janeite criticism of the Bank’s decision to adorn the new banknote with a quote from the odious Caroline Bingley. And last week a UK radio show, roughly the British equivalent of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” stirred the pot again by broadcasting an argument over the portrait of Austen planned for the new note.

The on-air disagreement – between Elizabeth Proudman, president of the UK Jane Austen Society, and Paula Byrne, author of this year’s biography The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – encapsulated a phenomenon I became intimately familiar with while researching Among the Janeites: the tendency for Jane Austen, perhaps more than for other writers, to mean different things to different people – and the tendency for her fans to feel deeply possessive of "their" Austen. The image planned for the banknote is a version of the frontispiece Austen’s family chose for the1870 Memoir of Jane Austen, written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. Although the 1870 frontispiece was based on the only portrait of Jane Austen known to have been made in her lifetime – a famous sketch by her sister, Cassandra, which now hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery -- it’s a softened and prettified version of the rather unprepossessing original. Even family members felt that neither Cassandra’s sketch nor the Victorian updating really looked like the woman they remembered. Byrne has marketed her book as a corrective to what she claims is a widespread view of Austen as a sweet-natured, unthreatening author of charming little romances. Byrne’s neutered Austen is a straw woman, in my opinion – anyone who’s spent time reading Austen criticism of the past few decades has encountered plenty of support for an edgier Austen – but unsurprisingly, she sees the Bank’s portrait as a further iteration of this wrongheaded view. During an October 30 broadcast of the BBC’s “Today” program (available here for two more days, starting at roughly 2:54:54), Byrne voiced predictable outrage that the banknote image didn’t match her mental portrait of a subversive, feminist Jane Austen. (Never mind that subversive feminists sometimes look like sweet maiden aunts – and vice versa – or that, at a distance of two centuries, we can’t ever know what Jane Austen actually looked like.) Proudman disagreed. She said she likes the bank’s image, and she insisted that Austen “was not a feminist.” “She put the novel on the map!” Byrne cried with theatrical outrage. “How could she not be a proto-feminist?” “I don’t think she was a fighter,” Proudman said. Byrne gasped audibly and began spluttering about the echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft in Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of Mr. Collins’ proposal. “I think what we have here is not really an argument about a picture, actually,” interjected the program's host, Evan Davis. “It really is an argument about what you think Jane Austen represents.” Indeed.


Nov 4 2013 04:47PM by Mags

So true. I haven't read Paula Byrne's Austen bio (yet) but it was obvious from the BBC special she did last year that she is passionate about changing the perception of sweet maidenly Jane. I agree with you that it is creating a strawman, and that only the crowd whose knowledge of Austen biography comes from DVD extras (specifically, the 2005 P&P DVD extras) still think that anyway. Also, what Byrne fails to consider is that the image is in the public domain, which was probably the main consideration for its use. They don't have to pay anyone or get permission. It's surprising to me that more Janeites don't look at things pragmatically, as Austen herself certainly did.

Nov 4 2013 09:14PM by Deborah Yaffe

Having paid through the nose to use the NPG's Cassandra sketch on my web site, I can understand the Bank's pragmatic impulse! :-) Would there have been a middle ground, I wonder -- getting the NPG to waive its fees, or commissioning a new, less prettified version? Of course, none of that would get us any closer to an accurate likeness, since that can't be attained at this distance. The thing that drives me most crazy about Byrne is her tendency to assert that if some JA image doesn't fit her internal picture of JA, it is therefore not what JA looked like -- a total non sequitur, IMHO.

Nov 24 2013 04:03AM by Arnie Perlstein

Deborah, it is a tragic irony that the image of Jane Austen that will be seen and handled by millions of Brits is going to be a grotesquely Bowdlerized Victorian whitewash (it bears all that repetition), Byrne is 100% right, I (and several other Austen scholars) posted the same thing right after the image choice was first announced. And the worst part is that the wolf is in charge of the henhouse, so to speak, since the President of the JAS, a woman, too, "proudly" defends the Bank's choice to pander to James Edward Austen's Bowdlerized Memoir. Cheers, ARNIE @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Nov 24 2013 03:48PM by Deborah Yaffe

I'm not crazy about that particular image either, but I don't think it's tragic for the bank to use it: we don't really know that JA looked like the Cassandra sketch, either, since we have no other contemporary images to compare it to and no real idea of how good a portraitist Cassandra was. I'm more entertained by the way that everyone, from JE Austen-Leigh on down, projects his/her own idea of who JA was onto these images of JA, as if a writer's outward appearance were some kind of infallible guide to her writerly intent.

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