What did Jane Austen look like? No one really knows.
Which is to say: We know fairly precisely her size and shape, but only a little of what her face looks like.
A forensic analysis done by clothing expert Hilary Davidson in 2015 details Austen’s figure. By analyzing an outer garment called a pelisse, known to have been Austen’s, and constructing a new one of the same dimensions, Davidson concludes that Austen was between 5 feet, 6 inches and 5 feet, 8 inches tall and she had a bust of 31 to 33 inches, a waist of 24 inches, and hips of 33 to 34 inches.
This made her tall for the age and typically spare. One observer, not necessarily friendly, used the metaphor of a fireplace poker to describe her, though it’s not clear whether that reference was to her ramrod shape or to the underlying iron of her personality.
Austen’s face in theory is one of the best known in the world, based on a somewhat cherubic image that has launched a thousand
books—and will soon be imprinted on England’s ten-pound note. The image is based on a watercolor done by her sister Cassandra in about 1810. However, people who knew Austen said the image was not very flattering, and the version normally used in print (see image) was further altered by an illustrator to soften her features.
The only other drawing known to be of Austen, also a watercolor by her sister Cassandra, is a lovely wash of blue in which Jane’s face is obscured by the angle and a large bonnet and her figure is obscured by her blooming dress (see image at the very top left).
There is also a silhouette, found in a family copy of Mansfield Park, believed to be of Jane (see image).
Two other images have emerged in the last few years. The most curious—and interesting image—comes from an Austen scholar, Paula Byrne, who wrote a lovely book called The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Byrne’s husband bought a drawing at auction that he thought resembled Jane.
On the back they discovered the name “Miss Jane Austin”—the name being a common misspelling. At first they thought the portrait might be a later rendering of her; but many things pointed to it being of Austen herself—in particular, the strong resemblance of the face to her brothers, particularly Charles (see images below).
Byrne, who eventually did a BBC special on the pencil-on-vellum drawing, calls the usual portrait “saccharine.”
Two of three Austen experts have supported the idea that the newly found portrait was of Austen.
Perhaps because the image is not as mild and sweet as the accepted image, only a few others have rallied around the likeness as a likely portrayal of Austen. In particular, Austen expert Deirdre le Faye rejects the portrait, but then le Faye has not always been enthusiastic about any ideas involving Austen or her family that did not originate with her.
Studies indicate that the picture is likely from 1815, when Austen was riding high as an author, though her identity remained largely unknown. It’s tempting to think that Jane may have had her portrait done after she saw some success. It’s likely to have been done in London, where she spent quite a bit of time as her books were in production. This is also when she cared for her brother Henry during a serious illness. An ornate church peeks through the window. Le Faye dismisses the building as being Canterbury. It’s more likely to be Westminster Abbey, with its symbolism as the resting place for literary greats.
Personally, I find the piercing intelligence—exactly the same as the gaze of her brothers Frank and Charles—to be more convincing than the soft, plump rendering of the conventional portrait.
Even more recently, forensic painter Melissa Dring was commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath to create a new portrait of Austen, working as if she had been commissioned by police to develop a sketch of someone. Dring took descriptions of Austen, incorporated the general family features—particularly the eyes and nose—and painted her as a woman in her late twenties, which she would have been during her years in Bath.
The best description of Jane’s face comes from her niece Caroline, who said it “was rather round than long—she had a bright, but not pink colour—a clear brown complexion and very good hazle eyes. She was not … an absolute beauty, but … a very pretty girl. … Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally.” Another person described Jane as having rosy cheeks.
Dring’s result is a striking portrait of a bright, humorous woman—though in my view the painter slathers on the red rather too thick. Instead of having rosy cheeks, Austen seems to suffer from rosacea. Interestingly enough, though, the result far more resembles the Byrne portrait than the conventional portrait (see image).
Dring explains her research and methodology here.
Unless someone finds an indisputable portrait of Austen, we’re left ultimately to speculation. However, the most believable rendering I’ve seen is a wax figure, also commissioned by the Jane Austen Centre, based on the Dring portrait and done by the renown sculptor Mark Richards (see final image).
Perhaps because this rendering is three-dimensional, it seems to best capture the stature, grace, and personality of a person whose intelligence and humanity radiate outward.
This is a woman who could charm her nieces and nephews, captivate men, be every woman’s best friend–and write insightful novels about human beings and their day-to-day lives.