All Janeites, I’m sure, wonder what their favourite author looked like. We have a strong idea of how George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy looked, based on the professional portraits and photographs that we have seen; however, to our knowledge, Jane Austen never had a formal portrait made. No doubt, this is because she never became a notable author in her lifetime and her family perhaps never expected her to rise to great fame.
The most reliable source that we are all familiar with, is the tiny pencil and watercolour sketch (above) made by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, when Jane was around 35 years old. The portrait can be seen in Room 18 of the Romantics Gallery, in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Although Cassandra was an accomplished artist, she was not a professional and the portrait has a rather unfinished look to it. While the portrait does display some of the Austen family features, Jane’s family members weren’t entirely happy with it. Years later, Jane’s niece, Anna Lefroy, claimed that the portrait was “hideously unlike”. Jane’s other nephews and nieces have the portrait only “very guarded and qualified approval…perhaps it gave some idea of the truth.”
The portrait shows us that Jane had round, rosy cheeks, a long, pointed nose, large, hazel eyes and dark brown curls around her face, corresponding to the description of her by Jane’s niece, Caroline: “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… Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally – it was in short curls round her face…She always wore a cap.”
The portrait above is, perhaps, the most common one by which Jane is known all across the world. The engraving was commissioned by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, for his book, “A Memoir of Jane Austen”, in 1870. The Victorian engraving by Lizars is based on Cassandra’s sketch, but it shows a Jane with slightly different features. In the second version, Jane even wears a wedding ring! One does wonder what Austen-Leigh thought about the portrait, having met Jane when he was a child.
The second most reliable source, though disappointing, is a watercolour sketch of Jane painted by Cassandra (above), showing her from behind. This was painted when Jane was 29, and Anna Lefroy referred to it as “a sketch which Aunt Cassandra made of her in one of their expeditions – sitting down out of doors on a hot day with her bonnet strings untied.”
From this portrait we can only gather that Jane probably had a good posture and wore pastel-coloured gowns with bonnets, which were in fashion in her time.
There is a silhouette, which is often used to portray Jane Austen (above). It was found pasted in a volume of the second edition of Mansfield Park in 1944 and had the handwritten inscription ‘L’aimable Jane’. Now why would someone put a silhoutte of someone called Jane inside a Jane Austen novel, if it wasn’t of Jane Austen herself?
Think what you will, I find this inadequate evidence and would be very cautious of using the silhouette as a true portrait of Jane Austen. The silhouette does not correspond to my idea of Jane with a rather long and pointed nose, instead of the slightly upward turning, straight one portrayed here.
The above picture was painted by Reverend James Daniel Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, after Jane visited him in Carlton House, the Prince’s residence, in 1815. The painting was found in Clarke’s friendship book and shows Jane dressed in her finest for the visit. The picture has not been authenticated, but researchers have studied the portrait and found the features matching those in Cassandra’s portrait.
The above portrait, known as the Rice portrait, was passed down generations of the Rice family, descendants of Edward Austen Leigh. Family tradition has it that this is a portrait of Jane Austen, but it is not known if it is of THE Jane Austen. I feel this is unlikely, as Jane will not have had a large, formal portrait made of her in her childhood, as there were none of Cassandra or her brothers when they were young.
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In conclusion, we can only be certain that the two portraits painted by Cassandra Austen can be considered authentic images of Jane Austen, but they do not show Jane as the attractive woman that she was described by some to be. We need to rely on descriptions given by people who knew Jane Austen.
When Jane was young, she was described by her neighbour Anne Lefroy’s brother, Sir Egerton Bridges, as being “fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full”. After her death, Jane’s brother Henry described her as follows: “Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height… Her features were separately good… her complexion was of the finest texture.”
According to Austen-Leigh, "in person she was 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."
What we do know for sure is that Jane Austen was slim, and tall by the standards of her time, with a good posture and a light step. She had a brownish complexion and good skin, and dark brown hair, which curled around her face. Her face was round, and she had full cheeks. She had hazel eyes and looking at family features, probably a long, pointed nose and a small, straight mouth. From her late twenties onwards, she always wore a cap.
Did she look like the lady painted by forensic artist, Melissa Dring, for the Jane Austen Centre (above), who looked at Jane’s authentic portrait and tried to bring out the humour and sparkle in Jane’s eyes? Or did she indeed look old before her time, with a scowl on her face, as her portrait shows?
We can only imagine Jane with our minds’ eyes and paint our own portrait, using our imagination.
Austen-Leigh, J-E. (2002). A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Oxford World Classics.
Laski, M. (1975). Jane Austen. Thames and Hudson.
Nokes, D. (1997). Jane Austen – A Life. UCP.
Tomalin, C. (1997). Jane Austen – A Life. Penguin.