Saturday, 7 July 2007

JA: A lively young woman or a dull spinster?

One of the most FLC (Frequently Launched Critics) I heard of Becoming Jane was that ‘Anne Hathaway was too pretty to be Jane Austen’. Ouch, that hurts! Thank God that James McAvoy looks very much like Tom Lefroy, thus I just have to focus on this ‘Anne Hathaway was too pretty to be Jane Austen’ thingy.

Now, after reading her letters, especially those written in her 20s, I believe that Jane was a fashionable lady. Why, she often talked about bonnets and gowns; how she combined the cawl of one bonnet with the ribbon of the other’s (Letter 14, December 18, 1798), how she loved dressing her hair in this way or that way, what she planned to do with her new gowns, or where to buy them (including asking Cassandra to do that for her, Letter 33, January 25, 1801). Caroline Austen (Jane’s niece) recalled that the sisters’ sense of fashion was not so agreeable (‘I beleive my two Aunts were not accounted very good dressers, and were thought to have taken to the garb of middle age unnecessarily soon’). However, Caroline was born in 1805, when Jane was about 30 years old. I believe that Caroline’s memories would not taken place until she was 5-7 years old… which means Jane would almost reach her 40s by then. Many things happened already to the Jane Austen that wrote about bonnets and gowns… broken-heart, the passing of her father, etc, that might alter her sense of fashion.

Jane Austen also loved dancing (particularly in her early 20s), sometimes dancing all the twenty dances (Letter 15, December 24, 1798), or 9 out of 10 dances (Letter 24, November 1, 1800), and had many dancing partners. Henry Austen said in A Memoir of Jane Austen (written and compiled by James Edward Austen-Leigh/JEAL, one of JA’s nephew from James Austen) that:

‘her stature rather exceeded the middle height; her features were separately good; their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics; her complexion was of the finest texture – it might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek; her voice was sweet; she delivered herself with fluency and precision; indeed, she was formed for elegant and rational society, excelling in conversation as much as in composition.’

Such a long sentence to describe that Jane Austen was pretty, or at least, charming and attractive. And I tend to consent with that, for in my mind, Jane was a lively, witty and chatty girl, but with loving heart and gentle eyes that could see through a person’s soul. Consequently, she would be someone we describe as charming. Though Jane might not be strikingly beautiful, she was an attractive girl that managed to make several lads fell for her. Including…Tom Lefroy, for that matter (who was exceedingly gorgeous with his bright blue eyes!).

Thus, I cannot imagine that the very Jane Austen whose letters and novels I am reading now looked like lady on the right. No offense to Cassandra, but even Anna Lefroy (JA’s niece, JEAL’s sister, who later married Ben Lefroy) said that the portrait was ‘…so hideously unlike…’ (Dring 2003).

Instead, in the Memoir, Anna described her aunt as ‘…tall & slight, but not drooping; well balanced, as was proved by her quick firm step. Her complexion of that rather rare sort which seems the peculiar property of light brunettes. A mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear & healthy in hue; the fine naturally curling hair neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match, & the rather small but well shaped nose.’ And this is important: ‘One hardly understands how with all these advantages she could yet fail of being a decidedly handsome woman.’

Then came Caroline Austen (Anna’s half-sister) with her own reminiscence of Jane:

‘her’s was the first face that I can remember thinking pretty, not that I used that word to myself, but I know I looked at her with admiration – Her face was rather round than long – she had a bright, but not a pink colour – a clear brown complexion and very good hazle eyes – She was not, I believe, an absolute beauty, but before she left Steventon she was established as a very pretty girl, in the opinion of most of her neighbours…Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally – it was in short curls round her face…’

JEAL himself recalled his aunt as;

‘very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.’

In addition to family recollections, an old friend Revd F.W. Fowle acknowledged Jane was an ‘attractive animated delightful person’. Revd Fowle also said that she was ‘certainly pretty-bright & a good deal of colour in her face-like a doll-no that would not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – she was like a child – quite a child very lively & full of humour' (Dring 2003). Another relative (Sir Egerton Brydges, brother of Mrs. Anne Lefroy, Tom Lefroy's aunt) said that Jane was 'fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full' (Radovici 1995).

Thus, we can safely assume that although Jane Austen might not be as pretty as Anne Hathaway, but there is little doubt for me that Jane was an attractive girl, and definitely prettier than Cass’ watercolour painting (which was done in 1810… when Jane was in a bad mood, perhaps…). I certainly don’t see how such a witty and lively woman like Jane would have such a dull expression as the woman in Cassandra's painting.

So, what did Jane Austen actually look like ?

Because the one and only portrait of Jane Austen (which was done by Cass) apparently bore very little resemblance to the real person, JEAL decided that, for the second edition of Memoir, he would have a different rendition of Jane Austen’s portrait. He asked a Mr. Andrew of Maidenhead to make another drawing of Jane. The picture was later engraved by Lizars and then used as a frontispiece of the second edition of A Memoir of Jane Austen.

Everyone happy? Not really. For Caroline admitted that ‘the portrait is better than I expected…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.’

Okay… now what? In an attempt to better portray Jane Austen physically, in 2003 Melissa Dring painted a sketch of Jane based on prominent family features, such as ‘the bright eyes, long nose, small, narrow mouth.’ The result was this one:

What do you think? For me, I like Melissa’s rendition of Jane Austen’s eyes… bright and witty, very Jane. But I think the nose is too long, for Jane’s nose was ‘rather small but well shaped’, instead of long the way Mrs. Austen’s or the nose of other family members were. But, since we will never know how Jane Austen really looked like, I can only summarise that:

- Though her nose might not as fine as Anne Hathaway’s, it was still considered fine and lovely (see Jane’s silhouette)

- She had witty eyes and tender smile, a good sense of humour (duh!) and loving heart

- She was an attractive and charming girl, definitely falling into the category of ‘pretty’

Conclusion: Jane Austen was a charming and attractive woman (though not as strikingly beautiful as Mrs. Anne Lefroy or Eliza de Feullide, or Anne Hathaway for that matter) with lovely heart, fierce intelligence, and a great deal sense of humour. I suppose her intelligence and wittiness outshone her physical beauty, hence she managed to attract many young lads, including the young Tom Lefroy (who even remembered her well beyond her death, till he was already an old fellow). And in the end, it matters not for me what she looked like, for she was indeed a creature of beauty in heart and head.


Austen-Leigh, J. E. 1871, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections (2002 Oxford edition), Oxford World's Classics, Oxford.

Chapman, R. W. 1979, Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dring, M. 2003, 'A new portrait of Jane Austen', Jane Austen's Regency World, Jan/Feb 2003, no. 1, pp. 5-9.

Radovici, N. 1995, A Youthful Love: Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy?, Merlin Books Devon.

See also Jane Austen Society of Australia for more renditions of Jane Austen's portrait.

Earlier, Jane Austen's World also had a post on JA's portrait that directs you to other links.

Pic 1: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

Pic 2: JA's watercolour painting done by Cassandra, c1810

Pic 3: a painting owned by Mr. Rice, one of the Austen descendants, who claimed that this girl was Jane Austen

Pic 4: Mr. Andrew's rendition of Jane Austen, based on Cass' painting and JEAL's request, c1870

Pic 5: Melissa Dring's version of Jane Austen

Pic 6: A silhouette titled 'L'amiable Jane' which appeared in the 2nd edition of Mansfield Park (c1833). Despite the lack of description, the silhouette is often considered as Jane Austen's silhouette.

Pic 7: Anne Hathaway, from


Rachel said...

The last line is so right- some critics have missed the point entirely, what matters is the inner beauty of Jane which is so apparent and indisputable. I think that Anne captured my perception of Jane fantastically, regardless of her outward beauty.

Vic said...

By all accounts Jane was prettier and livelier in person than the few surviving drawings and paintings would have you believe. Reliable sources say she resembled her father, who was considered a handsome man. Cassandra, her sister, was generally regarded to be the prettier of the two sister, but Jane's expression was lively and her humor shone through her eyes. I touched on these facts only lightly in my own post on what Jane Austen looked like.

However, the Rice Painting's claim that it is one done of Jane is dubious at best, and it didn't sell at auction in April. Melissa Dring's Jane looks like a servant with ruddy cheeks and hands. I frankly dislike it a great deal.

You did a marvelous job of researching this information, and we will probably never know what Jane truly looked like. However, for me Jane's attraction lies largely in her mind and talent. She doesn't have to be as attractive as the actress Anne Hathaway, in fact, Jane was probably on first notice not, well, very noticeable. But I think someone with passable good looks, a sense of humor, and keen intellect like Jane would grow to look prettier and prettier each time you met her. An one can imagine that Lefroy was as attracted to her wit as to her neat figure and cute face.

Vic said...

Just one more comment, because your post had admirably touched on all aspects of Jane's looks: Cassandra's portrait is the only life portrait we have of Jane. At best, Cassandra is a passable artist. She was not a great talent, hence the awkwardness of the rendering and the lackluster eyes. However, when you compare the portrait to a likeness of Jane's father, you can see the striking resemblance of eyes, nose, and mouth.

Icha said...

Thanks a lot, Ms Place! I have not looked closer as to compare Jane's portrait with Mr. Austen's, but that is interesting.

Yeah... with all due respect to Melissa Dring, I also don't think that would be Jane's portrait... with the exception of the lively eyes and the witty smile.