As a relatively unknown female figure Jane Austen never attracted the attention of professional portrait painters and their ability to “touch up”.
While she lived, but of course in death anything is possible.
She did, however, attract the attention of her sister Cassandra Austen, who sketched two images of her.
Neither of these are appearing on the new 10 pound note.
In 1810 Cassandra drew a sketch of her sister sat in a chair, arms folded, and captured complexity in the face of her sister. In 1870 James Edward Austen-Leigh, a nephew, commisioned for his Memoir of his aunt an engraving based upon the sketch by Cassandra.
What did this engraving do, well it ‘presents an Austen with a fuller mouth, her lips slightly upturned… Her eyes are made softer… Her face is rounder, neck longer, figure less sturdy, and hair less wispy… and she has sprouted more noticeably feminine breasts… A prettified chair matches the prettified young woman who looks softly at us with a serene expression in her gentle eyes.’ (Auerbach, 2004 p.19)
While I don’t quite agree with all of Auerbach’s observations the “feminisation” she describes is clear:
Spot any difference?
Ok, so they touched her up a little for the engraving, why is this so bad, why wouldnt we rather look at the prettier, softened, version, less aggressive in her posture, less dismissive of our interest?
Because this has been the result of a campaign, a campaign aiming to ensure that women achieve the social and cultural presence warranted by their genius and success. This has been achieved, and ought to be praised for it.
At least, it would have been if this image was of Jane Austen, and I am not sure that we can say it is, or that it is at all how Austen should be presented (if such a thing could possibly be argued).
This is a picture of a woman that has been tarted up, made more palatable, air-brushed, photoshopped. This is a commodified woman, a woman made sellable, her reality distorted to sell a book, and now, it seems, to adorn money. There will be an irony when we are using cash with a commercialised Jane Austen upon it.
For me this cannot be considered success for women’s equality, it is a decision which will allow for the continuation of the concept that women must achieve standardised norms of attractiveness and gentleness, rather than beauty in their work. This £10 Austen is not the woman who made this joke:
Mrs Hall of Sherborn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she was expected, oweing to a fright. -I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
My Vote for an image of Austen would have to be an earlier sketch from Cassandra.
As she looks out over a blank world of her own observation let the dead Jane Austen look away from the stupidity of commerce, of mass media, let her ignore our scrutinizing, repressing, conforming gaze, let her be whatever we please, and nothing we know.