Friday, May 17, 2019

Mirrors of the Mind, Part One

Reposted from Austen Authors.


His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue. She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors, under which she would endeavour to class what Mr. Darcy had described as the idleness and vice of many years continuance. But no such recollection befriended her. She could see him instantly before her, in every charm of air and address; but she could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess. - Pride and Prejudice
Though they may not be aware of it, readers of 19th century literature are inevitably familiar with the theory of physiognomy: the notion that a person's character can be assessed through their external appearance. Authors of the period almost invariably utilize the practice to delineate their characters, and Jane Austen is no exception, even as her physical descriptions of characters are notoriously brief. I'm particularly cognizant when physiognomical depictions creep into my reading, in no small part due to my research into psychiatric practices of the time (please refer to my novel, The Madness of Mr. Darcy), which relied heavily on appearance to diagnose disorder. I could name countless instances in Austen novels that rely on the theory. What more need we know about John Thorpe or Sir Walter Elliot than what we learn immediately upon introduction? However, I also believe that if there is one message that remains constant throughout all of her works, it is that appearance can be deceiving and actions speak louder than words. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?


First, I think we need to keep in mind how very wide spread the theory of physiognomy was in the late 18th century, when Austen wrote her earliest novels. The idea dates back to Classical Greece and has ebbed and surged it's way through Western philosophy ever since. It's revival in the 18th century is largely due to the writings of Johann Kasper Lavater, a Swiss pastor and poet affiliated with the early Romantics, whose writings on physiognomy in the 1770's were published in German, French, and English. His theories became so mainstream as to become part of everyday parlance, so that even a critic of physiognomy would very likely still utilize its conventions.

I believe that this is exactly what Austen does, providing physiognomical depictions of certain characters and then actively undermining them. The most obvious examples of this are Willoughby and Wickham. Both are charming men with the appearance of goodness, whose subsequent actions reveal how very despicable they really are. This is a tool Austen utilizes in every one of her books. Look at characters like Mary Crawford, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elliot: all are possessed of an external appearance that hides the corruption of their interiors. There are certainly also abundant examples of Austen characters whose exteriors perfectly mirror their souls, but Austen teaches us not to trust first impressions. We must wait until a person's behavior reveals the truth behind their intentions.

Jane Austen's Lady Susan Love and FriendshipThe topic is much in my thoughts having just finished rereading Lady Susan (by the way, if you haven't read it before or are planning to again, our read-along of the novel a few years ago is an excellent accompaniment. Find it at The Writer's Block forum). Written in the mid-1790s when Austen was not yet twenty, this short epistolary novel relies on a subversion of physiognomy to drive its plot. We don't have a description of the title character until six letters into the story, but her true character has already been laid bare. She is a conniving, unfeeling, and immoral woman, bent on indulging herself at the expense of others, including her only child, Frederica. Though she has never met her sister-in-law, with whom Lady Susan comes to stay, Mrs. Vernon and her relations know enough of their guest to think the very worst of her. Mrs. Vernon's brother, Mr. De Courcy, writes of Lady Susan in the most scathing terms and yet yearns to see her, much like some oddity on display in a circus side show. Despite his firm prejudice against her, he totally succumbs to her charm. Mrs. Vernon is not as easily deceived. When she finally meets Lady Susan, we finally receive the following description of her:
Well, my dear Reginald, I have seen this dangerous creature, and must give you some description of her, though I hope you will soon be able to form your own judgment. She is really excessively pretty; however you may choose to question the allurements of a lady no longer young, I must, for my own part, declare that I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan. She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older. I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace. Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend. One is apt, I believe, to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will naturally attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but deceit? Unfortunately, one knows her too well. She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white. She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.
Lady Susan's appearance is entirely deceptive, and Mrs. Vernon is only safe from her guest's enchantment because she has prior knowledge that guards against its influence. She provides the story with its conscience, coming the closest to the narrative voice we are accustomed to in an Austen novel, and anticipating the discernment of heroines like Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price, who perceive the faults behind a charming exterior even while those closest to them are blinded by it. Sense and Sensibility is an excellent example of Austen's ability to subvert our expectations using physiognomy, as not only are the charming revealed to be sinister (Willoughby), but also the vulgar prove themselves steadfast friends (Mrs. Jennings). Austen further explores this paradigm in Pride and Prejudice, tweaking it with romance, and producing the perfection that is Mr. Darcy. As this is where my analysis gets increasingly complex, I shall abandon it for today and resume the discussion later. I must say how great it feels to be working an essay, even if in fits and starts. My children leave me little time for such pursuits these days. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 25, 2019

This is a repost from Austen Authors: https://austenauthors.net/the-rice-portrait-of-jane-austen/.

How clearly I recall writing this blog post in March of 2011. I was six months pregnant with my daughter and spent the bulk of the morning at a lab getting my second glucose test for gestational diabetes. I whiled away the hungry hours devouring the new evidence that Jane Odiwe, author, artist, and friend, had brought to my attention concerning the authenticity of the Rice portrait. For decades, experts have debated whether the portrait is or is not of Jane Austen, the crux of the naysayers' argument relying on both the date of the portrait and a lack of proof of provenance. Would Jane Austen have been young enough to be the sitter, and why, if it is Austen, is there no mention of the portrait by her descendants for almost 100 years after it was painted? Some of the biggest names in Austen scholarship stand on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, but I have always wanted so very much to believe it is a portrait of Jane. My complete bias now on the table, you can imagine my excitement (possibly aided by glucose overload - turns out I did have GD) that early spring morning in 2011, as I delightedly detailed the history of the controversy and presented the new evidence that the painter was Ozias Humphry and not Johan Zoffany, as previously believed. I was too busy with new parenthood to properly follow up a few years later when new, high image photographs revealed a date on the canvas of seventeen eighty something (Claudia Johnson had already said it was proof of authenticity in this article, so what more could I really add, anyway?). Happy to live in a world where I knew just what my favorite author looked like, I proceeded through the next several years content the matter was closed, even as the National Portrait Gallery continued to stubbornly refuse to authenticate the portrait. So it was with chagrin and abject disappointment that I read on another March morning in 2017 the Financial Times article that discredited the portrait. My emotions were something like Elizabeth Bennet's in reaction to Mr. Darcy's letter: at first I refused to believe it, but gradually the truth took hold. There was stamp on the back of the Rice portrait that proved the canvass had to be made after 1800. I rushed over www.janeaustenriceportrait.com, where the Rice family keeps the world informed about their quest to authenticate the portrait, and saw their inability to reply to this blow with dismay. It was like a dear friend had died.

Since that day, I have come to accept that I love the portrait regardless of the sitter's identity. It can still represent my idealized image of who Austen was, even if it isn't actually her. Then yesterday I read this headline from The Guardian: Jane Austen? Family says note establishes disputed portrait's identity. By the time I reached the end of the article, hope had blossomed anew.

Even without any relevance to the Rice portrait controversy, the discovery of a previously unknown note by Fanny Caroline Lefroy, Austen's great-niece, would create buzz in the Janeite community, but the fact that this note explicitly establishes the provenance of the Rice Portrait makes it a bombshell. The handwriting matches Lefroy's, of which there are many existent examples. It was somehow, seemingly miraculously, suddenly found in Austen's writing desk.

Now, some of this feels just a bit too convenient. However was the note overlooked for so long? I'd like to see testing done on the paper to establish its age. There is a lot of information missing, but nevertheless, the claim is absolutely tantalizing. It certainly calls into question the dating of the stamp. Another explanation will need to be provided for its existence, but if it can be rationally accounted for, pressure for the National Gallery to finally recognize the portrait (and hopefully acquire it, saving it from its current fate in a storage locker) will certainly increase. What that would do to the value of the beloved but inadequate portrait by Cassandra Austen, currently the only verified portrait of her face, is an interesting question, as well as how that consideration might influence the NPG's position.

Also worth noting is that the authentication of the Rice portrait may have implications for another, unverified portrait, the knowledge of which is confined to a photograph in a Christie's catalog from an estate sale at Godmersham Park in 1983, its current whereabouts being unknown. You can read more about it in that original blog post from 2011, but the long and short of it is is that this could be a portrait of the Austen family. If so, Jane is the very young girl, positioned third from the left. Bears something of a resemblance to the girl in the Rice portrait, doesn't she?

You can see a much better image of the restored Rice portrait at the family's website: http://www.janeaustenriceportrait.com/latest-news/4581084461. It's gorgeous!