Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Guest Blogger: Is it Jane?

Welcome to Romance Reviews Today's first guest blogger...Lucinda Betts!
Her latest book from Kensington Aphrodisia THE SUPPLICANT is just hitting bookshelves. Be sure to check it out!

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Last April, a mysterious portrait of Jane Austen went up for sale at Christie's Auction House. What is the mystery, you ask. The artist isn't in question. British painter Ozias Humphry created the oil painting. The owner isn't in question. One of Jane's descendants, Henry Rice, is selling it. The mystery surrounding this portrait involves the subject. Is this a painting of Jane Austen or not?

Art historians question the hairstyle and the fashion of the dress worn in the portrait. Were those common when Jane Austen herself was a teenager? Those seem like reasonable questions to me, good reasons to ask whether the painting portrays our beloved mother of romantic comedy.

On the day of the (unsuccessful) auction, NPR's Reneee Montagne interviewed Clive James, author, poet and critic. He offered a strange reason to ask whether the painting depicted Jane. He said the teenager was too beautiful to be her.

"The author of Jane Austen's novels couldn't possibly look like this, or they would very different novels," James said. "Jane Austen was not outstandingly beautiful or she'd be remembered as that," James said. "It's definitely not in the character of the books to be about a beautiful woman. They are about a woman who is not beautiful yet who has other virtues," James said.

I see several problems with this argument. First, although the teenager is the portrait is pretty, she doesn't seem "outstandingly beautiful" to me. For "outstandingly beautiful" I suggest you admire "The Duchesse de Polignac Wearing a Straw Hat," which was painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun in 1782. (Jane Austen was born in 1775.)

If Jane were pretty as a teenager and faded to normality as an adult, would she still be remembered for that fleeting teenaged prettiness? Hard to say.

According to Wikipedia, Jane died of Addison's disease at the age of 41. Addison's disease affects the adrenal gland, usually as a result of tuberculosis. The physical symptoms of Addison's disease include: muscle weakness, weight loss, nausea, irritability, depression, and areas of darkened skin. If Jessica Simpson (who might be considered more beautiful than the teenaged girl in the Humphry painting) died of Addison's disease, would we remember her beauty as an important part of her life? Hard to say. We'd probably remember her pop songs and her acting (which may or may not pan out). If Jessica Simpson creates something as great as "Pride and Prejudice," I suspect her youthful beauty will become even less important in the annals of history.

But here's the part that gets me about Clive Jame's critique. Can't a beautiful woman imagine what it's like to be plain and write about it in a meaningful way? Can't an impoverished person imagine what it's like to be rich and portray that well?

While it's true that Charles Dickens actually worked in a sweatshop for a short period, and F. Scott Fitzgerald flirted along the edges of high-society, Anna Sewell was not a horse and Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn't a black male slave, and H.G. Wells was never invisible.

Novelists imagine themselves all the time in situations in which they've never found themselves--thankfully. Romance is filled with cowboys and millionaires and secret babies, and I would guess that those are rare in real life. Romance is filled with time travel and spaceships and mythological creatures, also rare in real life. Without ever having met a dragon or cast a spell, I myself have written about those experiences. Certainly Jane Austen was capable of the same.

And all the hoopla aside, I personally think the oil painting by Humphry looks a whole lot like the sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra.

Lucinda Betts

Check out Lucinda's website at: http://www.lucindabetts.com/

PS...if you're interested in appearing as a guest blogger, email Patti at fisc40pa@aol.com


Roach said...

What an interesting story and insightful perspective. Lucinda is so right. By what standard is the girl in the painting so extrordinarily beautiful. And what is the reason for thinking that only plain looking people write good stories about plain looking people? Does Mr. James hold himself to this standard, writing only characters that are similar to himself?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion. I hadn't actually heard anything about the auction or the interview, so it's captured my interest. As far as the discussion of renown beauty, I'm not sure one can compare the current media-drenched environment to that of the late 1700s. Would someone like Jessica Simpson have been known for her "beauty" back then? I don't think so. If Ms. Simpson were to pass on today, I don't believe she'd be known for her music or her film roles, either. If she were known at all, it would be because of her physique--and the career she's managed to build because of it. That is just my opinion, but in a world full of celebrities, many of whom have little or no talent, how many of these people will ever be remembered five, ten, fifty years from now? What have they contributed to the world? I'm quite certain titillation doesn't endure for 250 years the way Ms. Austin's novels have. Ms. Austin's contribution to the arts so far exceeds her supposed "outstanding beauty," that I'm not sure the discussion has merit. Had she lived in today's world, perhaps she would have been known as an attractive author and her face would appear on the back cover of her novels, but she would still be known first and foremost as an exceptionally gifted author. However, I do have to agree in part with Mr. James on the subject of what one writes about. It seems to me that most writers tend to have a personal theme, one which they explore repeatedly with each novel they write, almost as though they are trying to work it out for themselves. And if Jane Austin's theme has to do with plain-looking women finding happiness through their other virtues, then I might suggest that she didn't FEEL she was a particularly attractive woman. Whatever Mr. James thinks of the portrait, and, frankly, I don't see an outstandingly beautiful woman there, the more important matter is what Ms. Austin herself felt about her looks, her experiences with men in light of that perception. So if her books revisit the same concept of maximizing one's other virtues, it is because of Ms. Austin's experience in the world. Just my opinion, of course. Thank you for bringing up the discussion, Ms. Betts. Love your work. By the way, what theme do you tend to revisit in your stories?

Rachelle Chase said...

Fantastic topic, Lucinda! I did not know about the painting, nor the comments behind it. Thanks for writing such an interesting and thought-provoking post.

Suzanne, I agree with both you and Lucinda. ;-) Meaning, I agree that Jane Austen's theme could mean that she didn't feel she was particularly attractive, but it could also be because she was intrigued by the idea. As a writer, I oftentimes am attracted to writing about what I am not, as this is what makes the writing experience interesting. And sometimes, it can take awhile before that underlying "theme" begins to bore me, so it may be present in my writing from book to book. So for me, it's hard to speculate the level of Jane Austen's attractiveness because of what she wrote about. Because it's just as believable to me that she would have been considered extremely attractive, and yet was intrigued by what it would feel like not to be so.

Anonymous said...

My opinion? It takes a guy to reduce the great Jane Austen to a beauty contestant. An avid reader, Jane's appearance never concerned me one whit.
I'm with Ms. Betts on this one- a writer can write about whatever they chose. Perhaps we, as a culture are now obsessed with "beauty", when in the past, quality and depth were the ticket.
Most of Ms. Austens' work reflects the inequalities of life during her time- rich/poor, male/female and morality/immorality.
I don't care either way about the portrait. It is her message that carries the day!

HistoryGeek said...

Oh, my, but that sketch looks almost exactly like the painting. Why, I wonder, would Mr. James not assume that a portrait artist who wishes to gain more work among wealthy patrons wouldn't wish to present his subject in the best possible light - perhaps even "prettying" up someone who was a bit more plain? Please, that's been done since the pharoahs.

Lucinda Betts said...

First, I'd like to thank Patti for inviting me to the blog. Doing the research for this was a lot of fun. Before I wrote this, I wasnt aware that Dickens had actually worked in a sweat shop.

I agree with spinsterwitch. I'm not an art historian, but my understanding is that the dress and hair are from a period later than when Jane was 14, as she is supposed to be in the portrait.

But what if the artist painted Jane as a teenager from memory? What if he put her in clothes that were more fashionable?

Nikh, Rachelle, Troy and Suzanne, I agree--you don't have to be the characters you write. And Jane wrote so many characters. Which would she be?

And Suzanne, regarding which themes will I be covering in my next book...I write romance because I love exploring the internal battle strong women face when they fall in love--and I try to make my heroes worth the trouble!

Anonymous said...

The Addison's disease as Jane Austen's cause of death isn't definite. The idea has been raised a time or two, notably after JFK's experience with the disease raised public awareness.

Lucinda Betts said...

DS, I didn't realize that about Addison's disease and Jane--or about JFK and Addison's for that matter. That's very interesting!

Still, if she died of any disease at the age of 41, she probably wasn't looking to good for her last while. And she was moving around, searching for an environment that would facilitate her health. There are many reasons why Jane might not have been remembered as a beauty, even if she had been one as a teenager.