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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Semi-native daughter

Jane Austen’s stays in the southern English port of Southampton were short-ish and not especially happy.

As a seven-year-old, she attended boarding school there for a few months in 1783 but left when she contracted typhus and nearly died. More than two decades later, in 1806, Austen, her widowed mother, and her sister, Cassandra, moved back to the city to live with the wife of sailor brother Frank while he was at sea. During her two and a half years in a crowded family home in Southampton, Austen seems to have written almost nothing.

For Austen biographers, then, Southampton represents the place where her great novels were nearly lost to posterity. For Southampton, however, that inconvenient fact is no bar to embracing Austen as an honorary daughter.

And so it is that Austen’s portrait is among forty works depicting “people with connections to Southampton” that are currently on exhibit through September 30 at the Southampton City Art Gallery, as part of a collaboration with the UK’s National Portrait Gallery.

Among the other Southamptonites depicted in the show are the city’s first female mayor, a renowned soccer pundit, and the captain of the Titanic. The project also has a community-participation component: A professional artist created an original large-scale drawing for the show and worked with local art students to create their own portraits of Southampton residents, both famous and unsung.

It’s not clear whether the Austen portrait on display is the National Portrait Gallery’s famous sketch by Cassandra Austen, which was largely unavailable to the public during the NPG’s 2020-23 closure for renovation; the website of the newly reopened NPG implies that this famous portrait is back on display in London.

Either way, Austen’s current visit to Southampton is likely to be as short as her real-life ones. But hopefully happier.


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