Today, 16th December, Jane Austen was born 234 years ago in 1775. When such a fact gets into The Canberra Times, that is really something … even if it is only on the back page amongst other famous dates.
There’s even an accompanying picture. This struck a chord with me because of the recent TV film Miss Austen Regrets. Although most watchers seem to have enjoyed this, the general opinion was that the actor playing Our Jane, Olivia Williams, didn’t ‘look right,’ or ‘looked too modern.’ This set me to wondering just how much we know about 1) what Jane Austen did look like; and 2) what women really looked like in Georgian/Regency times.
The image in the newspaper is based on a rather miserable-looking sketch done, probably, by Cassandra. Once Austen became well-known, publishers demanded a likeness and that was just about all there was. Professional artists were engaged to prettify it, and that rather sentimentalised Victorian portrait is what we have ended up with. The family are on record as not thinking it at all satisfactory. Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh remembers his aunt as being:
very attractive; her figure rather tall and slender … her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. She had full round cheeks, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.
I always think that sounds rather like her own description of Emma. And it fits Olivia Williams rather well except for the round cheeks. Wasn’t she Jane Fairfax in the Kate Beckinsale Emma? Perhaps the casting agents do think she has a Regency look.
As for what people looked like then, we really have very little to go by. Portraits? They were not only expected to flatter the sitter (unless he was Oliver Cromwell!) but also to conform to the conventions of the day. Think of those Colonial artists with their kangaroos and aborigines … how could they really have thought they looked like that?
There are also the fashion-plates in collections such as Ackerman’s Repository. The women have such small hands and feet they could not have actually balanced themselves, let alone walked about. All their mouths are screwed-up little rosebuds. Will future generations think we all looked like Barbie dolls?
Who, or how would you choose to represent The Divine Jane?