Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How far have we come? Princess Charlotte's death in childbirth

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales
by George Dawe, oil on canvas, 1817
I'm not going to devote the time this topic deserves. That's more of a promise to myself than anything else, but I have been inspired to speak on the subject, and I will do so, even if I do not go as deep as the topic warrants.

I spoke not long ago of Princess Charlotte of Wales when I was sharing my adventures in London at the National Portrait Gallery (read the post here). She died after an excruciating breach labor to a still-born son which use of forceps could have prevented, but such intervention was against the philosophy ascribed to by her attending physician. This national tragedy sparked a new interest in birthing practices amongst members of the medical establishment: an entirely male body. Prior to this time, many doctors were content to leave the mysteries of childbirth in the capable (if often dirty) hands of the midwives. The effect of childbirth becoming such an intense focus of study had many positive effects but also many drawbacks, and we remain to this day subject to the inadequacies of a field of study conducted almost entirely by those who have no first hand knowledge of the experience.

Two articles in the news lately grabbed my attention. The first's headline is one that I'm sure ensnared many. 100 Women in 2016: Researching the female discusses the lack of knowledge we have in mapping the nerve endings in female genitalia as opposed to the swath of information available on the male. This dearth of knowledge leads many in gynecology and obstetrics to attribute responsibility for sexual dysfunction on the patient, as they do not understand the medical cause. The second article, Cesarean births "affecting human evolution", regards a study conducted in Austria demonstrating an increase in the number of women suffering from fetopelvic disproportion, or FPD, and attributing it to medical intervention's effect on the evolution of humanity. Basically, because cesarean births have enabled women who (like Princess Charlotte) may not otherwise have survived and delivered healthy offspring to do so, a genetic predisposition for a narrow pelvis is being passed down from one generation to the next, increasing the number of women who aren't able to deliver vaginally because the baby's head is too large to pass through the mother's birth canal. The result is the cervix doesn't dilate all the way, and labor fails to progress naturally.

This next paragraph is somewhat gruesome. Be warned.

Princess Charlotte went into labor at 42 weeks and 3 days on the evening of November 3, 1817. Having followed her prescribed diet, called a "lowering" treatment, she was weak due to inadequate nourishment and bloodletting. Mild contractions came at 8 to 10 minute intervals. Her cervix was considered to be a "half penny dilated," whatever that means (I could find out, but I'm not taking the time to do so). Around 3 am the princess had a violent vomiting spell, and important state personages were called into attendance. At 8 o'clock in the morning on the 4th she was only 3 centimeters dilated, and the labor continued to progress slowly. The following day at noon, after the presence of meconium was detected, doctors began to fear for the cild's life. A 9 pound, still-born boy was not delivered vaginally until 9 pm on the 5th of November. Charlotte had been in labor for 44 hours. Thirty minutes later she began hemorrhaging. The doctors were able to extract the placenta, and for a time all seemed relatively well, yet by the 6th she was dead, having experienced a series of severe spasms (follow the link for a detailed account of Charlotte's labor and death: http://www.innominatesociety.com/Articles/The%20Death%20of%20Princess%20Charlotte%20of%20Wales.html).

This is in many ways so similar to what happened to me when I gave birth to my daughter, yet with all the benefits of modern medicine that a 19th century princess could ever imagine. My daughter wasn't breach, but she was facing backwards, so all my labor pains were in my back and very intense. I could have blessed the anesthesiologist when I received the epidural. From then on my pains were not acute, but the labor didn't really advance. I had discussed with my doctor upon first being pregnant my doubts about being able to deliver vaginally, and she must have recalled my warnings, because after only one round of pushing at 8 centimeters with no progress she looked at me and said, "How wed are you to the idea of vaginal birth, because this is going to take a very long time. A mere hour later I had my daughter, but I could not hold her for several because of hemorrhaging. Sound a bit like Charlotte?

The reason I doubted my ability to give birth naturally was many fold. First, I was so fortunate as to have a gynecologist once who thankfully bothered to mention that I had unusually narrow cervix. Second, my husband and I were both the products of mothers who only had cesareans. Both are small women who delivered large babies. Third, my husband has one of the biggest heads I've ever seen. I mean, he can hardly buy a hat. I considered the matter and concluded it was quite likely I would not have a natural childbirth. Every medical expert I spoke with fervently disagreed.

I am now thinking of having another child. My hope is that this new research will allow me to point out a body of evidence to my new Swiss docs that helps them take my concerns about a VBAC seriously. My fear is that it will increase an already strong cultural reluctance towards assisted births of all sorts. I'm not particularly concerned about receiving proper medical attention if I need it, but I would rather avoid the rigamarole of waiting for the doctor to see the evidence before his or her eyes that I have been trying to explain for months and just get the whole ordeal over and done. First world problems, I suppose, but they take up a great deal of my attention.

So these are my thoughts on this sunny Tuesday morning. Doctors need to be less satisfied with their breadth of knowledge and start filling in the massive holes left by centuries of male-dominated medicine. In the meantime, please listen to your patients. Particularly when it comes to the female body, we are each so unique that it is impossible to boil us down into neat categories and distinct experiences, no matter how hard pregnancy manuals might try. It's disgraceful I should be able to compare the birthing practices of two hundred years ago to those of today and find doctors still subject to the same prejudices.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

NaNo Update: My parody of Carroll's parody of 'The Sluggard" by Isaac Watts

Just popping in to share a but of fun I've been having with my NaNoWriMo story, Darcy in Wonderland. I'm just under 35,000 words as I write this, a bit behind after a crazy viral thing that took me down for four full days last week, but still on track to finish 50,000 words before the end of the month. Some of the hardest earned words in those 35,000 are my responses to the many poems Lewis Carroll includes in Alice in Wonderland. I just got though the episode with the Mock Turtle, which is very verse heavy, and I'm in need of a short reprieve. 

In that scene Alice is asked to recite a famous moral poem by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and the words come out quite nonsensical instead. Thought I do a quick side by side comparison of Watts' original, Carroll's version, and my own Austen inspired variation. This is very rough still, but I'd still love to hear what thoughts you have on it: please share them!

First, Isaac Watts:

'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
"You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again."
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

"A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;"
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass'd by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till he starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, "Here's a lesson for me,"
This man's but a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading. 

                                                                    (1715)

Next:, Mr. Carroll's, with interrupting dialogue omitted:

'Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
"You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair."
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.
When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark;
But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.

I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.
When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon;
While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
And concluded the banquet by eating the owl. 
                                                                    (1865)

And my own:

’Tis the voice of the Lobster: In tones not muted,
‘Take no pleasure in novels? Intolerably stupid!’
Like a lady when shopping for muslins and lace,
Our minds shout agreement, even as our hearts race.
‘Little boy and girls should be tormented,’ he said,
But only so long as it is good for their heads:
‘To torment or instruct: words found synonymous.’
All precision of language has now gone amiss.”

“I passed by his garden, and to my surprise,
Something shocking indeed was happening inside.
‘Indeed! Of what nature!’ The questions were fret.
‘More horrible than anything we’ve met with yet.’
‘Good heaven! A riot? Give me peace of mind!’
‘I expect murder and everything of that kind.’
 Laughing, ‘The riot is only in your own brain!
The confusion there might drive anyone insane.’
                                                                              (2016)


Friday, November 4, 2016

Winner of Darcy By Any Other Name and NaNoWriMo


It is National Novel Writing month, so I am unlikely to be blogging much. This is unfortunate as I still haven't finished traveling my late summer travels with you. Look for pictures of Bath around Christmas.

Before I disappear, I must announce the winner of one copy of Darcy By Any Other Name donated by the gracious author, Laura Hile. Ya da da da da da! And the winner is: Anonymous #1. Well, that was a bit anti-climatic. The winner may expect to hear from us soon. Congratulations! If you missed the giveaway, do still check out my review of this fantastic book. You can read it here: https://alexaadams.blogspot.ch/2016/10/darcy-by-any-other-name-by-laura-hile.html



Also today is my monthly Austen Authors post. My subject? NaNoWriMo. Shocking, right? The nifty part is I have included an excerpt from the very little I have written so far of Darcy in Wonderland. I'm having great fun with this one! Please come check it out: http://austenauthors.net/austen-authors-at-nanowrimo/.



As the month wears on, I may share some more excerpts here, so keep a lookout and wish me good luck!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Giveaway! Darcy By Any Other Name

A bit of excitement: upon reading my review yesterday, author Laura Hile generously offered my readers a giveaway! One ebook edition of Darcy By Any Other Name is up for grabs. Giveaway will run for a week. Just leave a comment below including your email address. Good luck, and thanks Laura!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Darcy By Any Other Name by Laura Hile

I can think of few authors who do justice to Jane Austen's fine appreciation for the absurd, but Laura Hile is certainly one of them. Her Mercy's Embrace trilogy (read my reviews) has long been amongst my very favorite Austenesque stories, and it was with impatience that I waited for the day last summer when I finally got to greedily devour a new book by Ms. Hile. I admit to feeling some trepidation regrading the premise of Darcy By Any Other NameMr. Darcy is struck by lightening and changes bodies with Mr. Collins. The very notion left me uncomfortable. Darcy as Collins? It gave me that feeling I get when an actor on film does something so ridiculous I can barely stand to watch, usually Will Farrell. There may even have been a moment of hesitation before I cracked the cover, but I knew I could trust the writer who redeemed Elizabeth Elliot, and in I plunged.

What a ride.

If there were cringe worthy moments, they effectively conveyed Darcy's own extreme discomfort with his predicament. Who am I to be skeeved out when it's poor Mr. Darcy who has to endure it? Upon first awakening from the accident, he find himself a virtually prisoner at Longbourn, studiously guarded by the well-meaning Mrs. Hill.

Darcy's eyes studied Hill as she moved about the room. In order to escape he might have to climb out a window and slide down the drain pipe. Not that he hadn't done this before, but how would Collins' flabby body respond? He'd caught glimpses of Collins' thighs, each one plump and rounded like the body of a seal. Could he climb with such legs? Could he manage to ride?

Darcy watched Hill stir the coals and add wood to the fire. How many stones was Collins? Did the Bennets have a horse that would bear his weight?

Presently Hill went out, and at once Darcy sat up, wincing a little at the way his head hurt. Steeling himself against pain, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Secretly he had practiced standing to gain strength and balance. Now it was time to venture farther.

Darcy took a sliding step in the direction of the wardrobe. He found that by holding on to the bedstead and then bracing himself against the nearby wall, he could reach the wardrobe door. Hanging inside were a black frock coat and a single pressed shirt. The shelves held smallclothes, stockings, and a cravat, clean and nicely folded. Darcy gathered these and made his way back to the bed.

With a weather eye in the unlocked door, he managed to dress himself. The effort left him weary and winded. He glanced at the clock. No wonder, it was almost time for the midday meal--more bone broth. Wonderful.

One of the things he'd noticed about Collins' body was how hungry he was. Continually he was craving food, especially sweets. This, Darcy decided, was something that would have to change. He would not be a slave to a voracious appetite.

The pages flew by as I anxiously sought resolution, desperate to learn how such an extraordinary occurrence might be undone, little suspecting that more than a body stood in our hero's way. Of course Elizabeth might learn to love Mr. Collins despite his person, were he Mr. Darcy inside, but how to rectify such a predicament proved just as complex as reclaiming a body. The novel is action packed, just like Mercy's Embrace, but Darcy By Any Other Name is a longer and more linear story, allowing the reader to linger and smell the roses. I think I might like it better. Rereads will tell. Brava, Laura!

And now we have a giveaway! Win a free ebook of Darcy By Any Other Name here: http://alexaadams.blogspot.ch/2016/10/a-bit-of-excitement-upon-reading-my.html.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horatio Nelson at the NPG and in Edinburgh

by Lemuel Francis Abbott, oil on canvas, 1797
I am not hugely enamored with military history, but one cannot study Jane Austen's era without knowing something of Nelson. For better or worse, my early impressions of the man were defined by the 1941 film That Hamilton Woman (it's amazing how many characters, both real and fictional, were first introduced to me as Laurence Olivier). Those of us who don't find military history fascinating sometimes cling to scandalous tidbits like Nelson's affair with Emma Hamilton, as they are far more engaging to our brains than battle maneuvers. So it was with some chagrin that I visited The Nelson Monument on top of Calton Hill only to discover the small but highly informative museum exhibit dedicated to him there made not a single mention of his notorious mistress. For my five pounds, I would have liked to have had that small bone tossed my way. Of course, I was paying to climb the tower and enjoy the view, which I would gladly do again.

I suppose the legitimate Nelson enthusiast must get rather bored of we dilettantes who want to delve again and again into the details of his great romance. I understand that his military career is legendary and of far greater lasting significance than the details of his love life. Yet when presenting the image of a man in his entirety - when seeking to understand his character and motivations - is not such information essential? Behold his portrait on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London: this is not the image of a glorified military emblem (as we saw George IV portray himself in the same room), but a surprisingly gentle and unassuming looking man, not formidable in the least despite the proudly display of his Star and Ribbon of the Bath and Naval Gold Medal. This portrait is based on one from a previous sitting for the same artist, though it was also taken from life, and it was commissioned for Lady Nelson. How I wished there were portraits of both she and Lady Hamilton nearby! Perhaps such a display would be a bit sensationalist, especially in a room of the gallery dedicated George IV, but I would have reveled in it, nonetheless. I find this portrait fascinating in its backstory. There is some madness in this tale, and that always sparks my imagination. This is from the NPG website:
Although Nelson only sat to him twice, Abbott subsequently copied the picture over forty times. The copies gradually declined in quality as the artist became mentally ill but this was no bar to their popularity. Many were purchased by Nelson's naval colleagues, his family and friends.  
In July 1798, Nelson's wife wrote to him: 'My dearest Husband - I am now writing opposite to your portrait, the likeness is great. I am well-satisfied with Abbott… it is my companion, my sincere friend in your absence…'.
Nelson supposedly began his affair with Lady Hamilton that September, so there's your scandal. Revel with me.

Please enjoy the views from the top of the monument. It was incredibly windy up there but totally worth the climb. One gets the feeling of being an admiral on his ship, looking out into the endless distance.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode

The Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

View of Hollyrood Castle from top of Nelson Monument

View of the rest of Calton Hill from Nelson Monument, including
the National Monument of Scotland and the City Observatory.

View of Arthur's Seat from Nelson Monument

View of Calton Hill, Edinburgh New Town, and the Firth of
Forth, estuary to the North Sea, from Nelson Monument.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Jane Austen Lives Again by Jane Odiwe

It's been forever since I wrote a review! And I read a bunch of great Austenesque novels over the summer, so I have a lot of backtracking and sharing to do. I believe my best reviews are written when when I have just finished a novel, so I fear I won't really be doing these books justice. However, a late and short review is better than no review at all. Believe me, I know.

I had the very great pleasure of meeting the author of this first book after many years of corresponding (and even of more admiring her work) at this year's Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Jane Odiwe was just as lovely as I always knew she would be. In fact, all the Austenesque authors I met while in Bath seem exceptional people to know. Must be something about those of us who have Austen as a muse.

Ms. Odiwe, also a painter, seems to live a life inspired by Austen. No wonder she should be compelled to bring our dear authoress to life in her novels. Jane Austen Lives Again feels like the culmination of the journey Ms. Odiwe has been leading us on through her last few novels. In Searching for Captain Wentworth (read my review here) she took us through a portal to Regency Bath, where our heroine meets Jane Austen. In Project Darcy the heroine encounters the ghost of Tom Lefroy while staying at the Ashe Rectory near Steventon, triggering episodes in which she finds herself inhabiting Austen's body. Perhaps it was inevitable that Ms. Odiwe would next make Austen her heroine instead of a using a modern surrogate.

Jane Austen Lives Again is not really a time travel story. It's more of a Frankenstein story, though far less gothic. The time is 1925. Dr. Lyford, descendent of Jane's doctor during the illness that proceeded her death, has reanimated her, cured her, and taken quite a few years off her age at time of death in the process. Now determined to make her way in a new world, she gets a position as governess to Sir Albert and Lady Milton's five daughters, each of whom bears a resemblance to one of Austen's heroines. They live a rather bohemian lifestyle in their crumbing ancestral castle. Jane takes them in charge, of course. There is so much more to the story - romance, health complications, makeovers, wild motorcycle rides - but what stand out to me most of all is Ms. Odiwe's ability to write like she's painting. I've spoken of this is in probably all my reviews of her work, but it is fascinating to watch her capture this post-WWI world, which is so very different from the one she usually describes and so very incongruous from the one with which we usually associate Austen. I love this super vivid introduction of Lady Milton:

Lady Milton dragged on her cigarette holder and blew ring of smoke into the air. Her ankles were crossed, and as the scarlet Louis heeled slippers with pom-poms of swansdown tapped against the other in agitation, the kimono fell away from her knees to reveal pale shapely legs. Jane thought she must have been very beautiful once, and stared with fascination at her heavily made up face, powdered and rouged, with kohl-black eyes lined with paint.  

We're in a whole new world! I can see Lady Milton liked she stepped off an old New Yorker cover.
Jane Austen Lives Again is perhaps my favorite of all the novels Ms. Odiwe has written to date. What a joy to view a different time and place through Austen's eyes, so skillfully rendered! Writing this review, I want to start rereading it and relive the adventures of Jane, along with her most interesting charges, Mae and Alice Milton, once more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Prince Regent and Crew: Room 17 of the National Portrait Gallery, London

George IV doesn't get a lot of credit. Quite frankly, he's not very deserving of it. However, he did set the tone for the final years in which Austen lived, and though she spent most of her life under his father's rule, it is the Regency period with which we associate her. His best legacy is his patronage of the arts, and as an early admirer of Austen "suggested" she dedicate Emma to him. George IV might have been a ghastly leader, but he and his times maintain a hold on the collective imagination, and while I was exploring the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this month I took particular interest in portraits of him, his contemporaries, and his associates. Here is a quick tour of Room 17 of the gallery, dedicated to George IV's regency and reign (1811-1830).

by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
1792
 
by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
circa 1780-1782
There are no less than four portraits of George IV in this room. I think that might be the most I saw of anyone in the entire museum. The two oldest are miniatures on display in a special case and date from the late 18th century. The first image portrays a younger, carefree prince, bright with promise of future mischief. He is about 20 years old, and it has been speculated that the miniature was commissioned for then-mistress Perdita Robinson. The second, in which he wears masquerade garb, was painted ten years later and is definitely a love token, as it is set in a locket with a a plait of hair on the back. The recipient might have been Maria Fitzherbert, the woman he illegally married in 1785, or another mistress. He officially parted with Mrs. Fitzherbert two years later (though they would later reconcile), that he might marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, the following year. Desperately in debt, his father promised to bail him out if he went through with the marriage to a woman whom he had never met and came to despise.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvass, circa 1788

Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
oil on canvas, 1804
George IV and his legitimate wife had one child, Charlotte Augusta of Wales, within a year of their marriage before separating. Princess Charlotte, unlike her parents, had the sympathy of the people, and when she died after days of agonizing childbirth at the age of 21 a massive public mourning was observed.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales
by George Dawe, oil on canvas, 1817

by Sir Thomas Lawrenceoil on canvas, circa 1814
This flattering but unfinished portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was originally intended for use on a medal that was never struck. Lawrence was forced to defend this unbelievable likeness. Three years into his regency at the time it was painted, George IV had already reached his famously large proportions, years of decadence taking their toll. Still, it's a gorgeous painting. I have a thing for unfinished portraits.

after Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1815

Above find a work completed by Lawrence the following year. Again, it's very flattering (the Regent was well into his 50s), but I suppose that's what you have to do as portraitist to a monarch. I think this is how we often imagine George IV, in his elaborate military regalia. The Regency years saw Napoleons final defeat, but not because George IV was some sort of an awesome military leader, as portrayed in this portrait. He did, however, have a highly capable general and politician in Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.


Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
by William Salter, 
oil on canvas, 1839
George III died in 1820, and the following year his son was finally coronated. Before he would ascend the throw, George IV attempted in vain to have his marriage to Queen Caroline annulled. Having been abroad for years, she hurriedly returned to England after George III's death and was greeted by exultant crowds. The matter was debated in the House of Lords, the painting below depicting the sixth day of the proceedings. When she was acquitted of adultery (of which she was most certainly guilty), George IV banned her from the coronation, on which day she fell ill. She died a few weeks later, claiming to have been poisoned.

The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter, oil on canvas, 1820-1823
Also displayed in Room 17 are portraits of George IV's brothers, busts of artists and politicians of the day, and a portrait of Horatio Nelson, whom I will address another day. I conclude with thoughts on why a tumultuous time period such as the Regency should have such romantic appeal to modern audiences. How much did George IV reflect and sculpt the times in which he lived? Is it the very chaos of his era that enthralls us? I could dwell on such questions forever, and this room of the gallery is the perfect place for such contemplations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jane Austen's Portrait

I'm home! I had a fabulous time with family in Scotland then on my own in Bath at the Jane Austen Festival. I learned so much, and my current intention is to reinvigorate my blog by sharing my adventure with you. What better place to start than with the lady who made it all happen?

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

I flew into London the day before the festival began and spent the night there, so I might have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had missed this museum on my two previous visits because no one else in my traveling party was particularly interested. Other sights always took priority. As it turns out, it was a very good thing for me to go alone, because it allowed me to get lost in the collection for three, undisrupted hours. It was fabulous! Unsurprisingly, I was particularly excited by the many portraits of writers whose works have shaped my life and mind. I am putting together a virtual "scribblers tour" of the gallery for my next Austen Authors post (I'll crosspost here), but I want to use this forum to take a more in depth look at Jane alone.


by James Andrews, watercolor, 1869
published by Richard Bentley, stipple engraving, 1870

Let's be clear up front: the portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen is easily the most unsatisfying likenesses displayed in the entire gallery. It's really awful, and that is precisely what makes it so intriguing. As the plaque inserted beneath the glass box which contains the portrait so accurately states: "Few English novelists have commanded such popular affection and critical respect as Jane Austen." And this is the best we can do for her portrait? For over a century, artists have used this sketch as the premise for more "satisfying" renditions of Austen. It is this legacy which helps authenticate the portrait: James Edward Austen-Leigh used it as the basis for the watercolor he commissioned in 1869 for use as the frontispiece to his biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen. Painted by James Andrews, it is his watercolor from which the varied engravings of her image are derived. However, there is still dispute over the portraits authenticity. As Claudia Johnson notes in Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, there is no recorded mention of Cassandra's portrait prior to 1869. The NPG's website states:
This frank sketch by her sister and closest confidante Cassandra is the only reasonably certain portrait from life. Even so, Jane's relatives were not entirely convinced by it: 'there is a look which I recognise as hers', her niece wrote, 'though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.'
So is this Jane? If so, she appears almost surly in it, as if she can little spare the patience to sit for her sister. Austen-Leigh's biography, which he wrote was conceived "in a spirit of censorship as well as communication," clearly tried to remold his literary aunt into something acceptable to the family's Victorian sensibilities. He gave the public an image of a demure spinster, which does not mesh well with the acerbic nature of the novelist's voice. For this reason I much prefer Cassandra's drawing, even with all its deficiencies, than the prettied up version. I can more easily imagine Jane as an unwilling sitter than a wallflower.  


by Ozias Humphry, oil on canvas, 1788 

There is another portrait: one that fulfills all the expectations that Cassandra sketch so sadly disappoints. The Rice Portrait is the subject of hot debate. I admit: I am biased in its favor, and not just because it would be absolutely glorious were it her! First there is the fact the National Portrait Gallery, in its early days, attempted to acquire the portrait, at the time describing it as a portrait of Austen. It was only after the purchase fell through that the gallery cast dispersions on its authenticity. Next is the fact that while the portrait was long believed to be the work of Johan Zoffany, high definition images of the portrait have recently revealed the signature of Ozias Humphry (who had a history of painting portraits of the Austen family) as well as a date: 1788. The date is important for a variety of reasons but primarily because scholars had previously argued that the portrait, based on the clothing, had to have been painted in the early 19th century, when Jane would have been too old to be the sitter. Elite art historians and scholars are still reluctant to validate the portrait, maybe because it would place such a priceless object in private hands? I watch the debate eagerly for resolution, but there seems to be none in near sight. For more information, please visit www.janeaustenriceportrait.com.



by Cassandra Austen, watercolor, 1804

The only image we have of Austen that is positively, indisputably her is only of her back. As beautiful as Cassandra's other portrait is homely, it is perhaps my favorite of them all. How appropriate that we cannot see her disputed face! The author remains enigmatic, which is just as it should be. After all, every reader of Jane Austen has their own Jane. We hear her narrative voice. She speaks to us with an intimacy few other writers capture. We each have our own vision of who she is, from proper gentlewoman to devilish wit. Perhaps if we were certain what she looked like, our imaginations would not be so free to view her in the guise we choose. 


(Note: I have not discussed the "Byrne Portrait" in this post as I have yet to hear anyone but Paula Byrne insist on it's authenticity. Still, it offer another interesting possibility. I suggest this article for the full details: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number34/kaplan-d.pdf)