Countenance

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Once again the Janeite world (and the Muggle press that insists on blowing these things all out of proportion) are creating a controversy out of nothing over images of Jane Austen.

Sotheby’s is auctioning a fake portrait of Jane Austen next month. As fake portraits go, this one is probably slightly less fake than some others. It was commissioned by James Edward Austen-Leigh to be used to create an engraving as a frontispiece to Austen-Leigh’s 1869 Memoir of his aunt. The painting was done by James Andrews of Maidenhead by tracing Cassandra Austen’s watercolor portrait of her sister. The engraving was later used as the basis of perhaps the best-known image of Austen, the infamous “wedding ring portrait” included in a book of eminent persons.

There has been some concern expressed by our own correspondents over this sale, as it is feared it will share the near-fate of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring, purchased and taken out of the country rather than added to a public collection; it would probably be nearly impossible to mount a second rescue mission by Janeites and the museum at Chawton as was done for the ring. However, we find it difficult to get very upset about the fate of this portrait. It is a nice little painting, and that’s it. It wasn’t taken from life, thought it was traced from a portrait that was so taken. However, in the dearth of such images taken from life, Janeites have created new icons of our favorite author. The painting certainly deserves to be part of a museum collection dedicated to Austen. It is to be hoped that whoever purchases it can preserve and display it for all to enjoy.

This portrait has been in the news lately in other ways, as the engraving created from it was used as the basis for the image of Austen that will appear on the British ten-pound bill in a couple of years. Biographer Paula Byrne has been all over the press of late complaining about the portrait chosen for the banknote. Prof. Byrne has previously been recorded as quite passionate on the subject of images of Austen. She feels that the portrait makes Jane appear “saccharine” and that it is an “airbrushing” of Cassandra’s original portrait, and perpetuates Austen’s family’s whitewashing of her personality. We understand Prof. Byrne’s passion on the subject, though most Austen fans, scholars, and attentive readers know better than to consider Jane Austen a sweet, retiring spinster. However, we think that the portrait was chosen for a very simple reason: it is in the public domain. Cassandra’s portrait is owned by the National Portrait Gallery and it cannot be used without its permission, and probably without paying a hefty licensing fee.

All that being said–yes, let’s pick a different Austen quotation for the banknote! We still think the best one would be “I write only for Fame and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.” However, the Muggle public would probably not recognize Austen’s delightful snark.

Check out our previous post, A Closer Look at Images of Jane Austen.

Fan art might not be fan art, but it’s hard to tell

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Fan painting of Jane Austen

Copyright claimed by Paula Byrne

A while back, we shared a link to an auction of what we teasingly referred to as “fan art,” a portrait of Jane Austen thought to have been executed by a dedicated reader who liked to draw photos of how he imagined his favorite authors to look. At the time, we added a copy of the photo of the portrait (which you can see at left–click for the larger size) that we took from the auction site.

A few days after the auction, we received a request from someone claiming to represent the buyer. He said the buyer now owned the copyright, and asked us to remove the photo. He also promised that the image was being investigated and we would receive information about it when it became available. We disagree with the claim of copyright, which was owned by the photographer of the portrait, not the owner of the portrait; however, we don’t own the copyright either way, and he asked nicely, and we didn’t care enough about the image to fight it, so we took it down, asked to be updated when the time came, and forgot about it.

Yesterday, we received an e-mail saying we could post the photo again, with a press release about a program(me) to be aired on BBC Two, meaning we won’t be able to see it legally, which gives zero information about the actual portrait other than the usual tiresome claims about THIS IS THE ONLY REAL PORTRAIT OF JANE AUSTEN EXCEPT FOR THAT UGLY TIRED LITTLE THING IN THE NPG THAT DOESN’T COUNT. It all sounds very interesting, but it does us zero good as far as actually learning anything new. It just tells us to watch the TV program(me) that will be broadcast on another continent if we want to know more. We’re feeling a little used here, Gentle Readers. But we present the information, because that is our job, and we think it will be this week’s Wonder Story About Jane Austen. See our previous post about images of Jane Austen. Full press release after the jump. Continue reading

So about this poisoning thing

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Lots and lots of Alert Janeites (including some old friends who have been quiet as of late, as has the Editrix) have let us know about the spate of recent articles in which Lindsay Ashford, who not at all coincidentally has a new novel (as in, fiction) called The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen (which by the way sounds really interesting), is making the publicity rounds, resulting in a bunch of “news” articles breathlessly asking WAS JANE AUSTEN POISONED? OH MY GOD, WHAT SOCIOPATH POISONED SWEET SPINSTERLY JANE AUSTEN? We exaggerate, as is our custom, but not all that greatly. The Daily Fail’s sensationalistic headline is typical.

Ashford’s claim revolves around the lock of hair currently at Chawton Cottage was tested some years back and was revealed to have some arsenic in it. Ashford says that along with Austen’s comment in a letter about her skin being discolored, this indicates that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. Apparently one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is skin discoloration. That’s interesting to us, as some women in Austen’s time ingested small amounts of arsenic, or used skin lotions containing arsenic, to keep their skin white. Ashford points out that many medicines of the time contained arsenic, and perhaps such medications taken over a long period of time built up and poisoned Austen. Ashford is also not too shy to suggest (as apparently she also does in her novel, as in fiction, as in–dare we say it–Made Up Story) that if Austen did indeed die of arsenic poisoning, it could have been administered with malice aforethought.

Okay, so maybe it happened. Maybe Jane Austen quacked herself with medication containing rat poison that eventually built up and killed her. Maybe someone purposely poisoned her over a long period of time. We’ve read this, and we’ve read the other recent claims about What Killed Jane Austen, and all we can say is “maybe.” We will never know for sure what caused Jane’s death (short of digging her up, and then let us tell you the Editrix will be leading the torches-and-pitchforks crowd blocking the entrance of Winchester Cathedral. Not on our watch, Gentle Readers). While we can sympathize with the idea of solving a 200-year-old mystery, what difference does it make? Will it make Jane any less dead? Will it somehow reach back through time to allow her to live another five, ten, twenty years, finish Sanditon and write a dozen more books? No, it will not. So it seems to us that the motivation behind this is little more than bragging rights, and we find it distasteful, and the whole discussion tiresome.

That being said, we think Addison’s disease is as good an explanation as any, mainly because (according to our admittedly non-exhaustive research) critical periods of the disease can be brought on by stress, and Jane suffered two great shocks that caused her health to deteriorate: the failure of Henry Austen’s bank, and the failure of her uncle Leigh-Perrot to make provisions in his will to relieve the financial distress of his sister, Mrs. Austen, and her family, as he had long promised, instead putting his entire estate in the control of his tight-fisted wife. (Insert your own conspiracy theories about Aunt Norris here.) Also, Addison’s disease can cause skin discoloration, and as an auto-immune disease, also manifests in symptoms typical to what she described, which were less pain than fatigue, and seemed to be cyclical–she would get worse, than a little better, than even worse than before, then a little better, on and on. But it is hard for us to get much excited about the subject.