ON WEDNESDAY, 11 December 2002, Fiachra Gibbons, the arts correspondent of The Guardian, reported that "the face Jane Austen has shown the world for nearly 200 years has been that of a moon-faced spinster crestfallen at the loss of her looks." Gibbons reports that Cassandra's "tiny, washed-out pencil sketch ... makes [Jane] look a frump. Even Austen's family was unhappy with the likeness at the time." For some readers, wits, and aficionados with benign addictions to the melodramatic world of police detectives as depicted by such TV dramas as CIS/Crossing Jordan, or by the character Inspector Morse, or by the best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell (poor Walter Sickert!), a single not very vivid portrait simply will not do. Enter the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and painter Melissa Dring.
Dring, a police forensic artist, was commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre to paint a new portrait of Jane--one, as the article in The Guardian notes, that presents "an image more in keeping with the wit of the author of Emma, Persuasions, and Sense and Sensibility." (Frankly, I want to know why Pride and Prejudice didn't make it into that list.) How amusing it is to contemplate the reconstruction of Jane Austen's face by a forensic artist and courtroom sketcher. The author herself surely would love the ironies implicit in this "forensic" (1)--and therefore "rhetorical"--reconstruction of her self from the merest shreds of evidence.
Yet, this reconstruction comes to light just two months after JASNA's 2002 AGM, a conference focused on reconstructing not Jane Austen's face but her world--in all its varieties and inconsistencies--from shreds of evidence culled from the author's novels and letters. Invitations and proposals, chapels and country houses, adultery and arguments, revolts and soliloquies--what was life like in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century world in which the author lived? What did Jane Austen know about the ideas that worried such writers as William Beckford, William Godwin, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and Sydney Smith? How did she use her novels to comment on contemporary politics, religion, society, art, science, and literature? Does the world Austen creates in her fiction successfully re-create the world she lived in? Do films today successfully re-create the exterior as well as the interior landscapes of Jane Austen's world? To reiterate: What was Jane Austen's world like during the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century?
Rather than struggling to reconstruct Jane's countenance on the basis of very little (indeed, "sketchy") evidence, let us explore in some depth Jane's world, society, and personality on the basis of the very vivid and informative evidence she left for us. …