segunda-feira, 30 de dezembro de 2013
Pretty Words, Jane; Would That You Were Too
By CHARLES McGRATH
IDEAS & TRENDS
NOBODY knows for sure what Jane Austen looked like, which is causing some of her admirers a degree of anxiety these days. Was she attractive or not? What if, to put it bluntly, she became a writer in part because she didn’t have the looks to land a husband along the lines of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightley?
There is no definitive portrait. Scholars think that a small pencil-and-watercolor sketch by her older sister, Cassandra, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London, is a fairly trustworthy likeness, though a niece, Anna, said that the Cassandra sketch was “hideously unlike” her aunt. It shows a rather plain woman on the wrong side of 30 in a spinsterish cap, with what may even be a hint of a scowl.
The image is sufficiently homely that Wordsworth Editions, a British publisher, recently decided to Photoshop it, removing the frumpy headgear and giving Jane some hair extensions and a bit of blush in her cheeks. This airbrushed version (inspired perhaps by “Becoming Jane,” the new biopic starring beautiful, bosomy Anne Hathaway, showing in Britain this month and scheduled for release in the United States in August) will appear on the cover of a re-issue of a memoir of Austen by her nephew.
Austen “wasn’t much of a looker,” Helen Trayler, the managing director of Wordsworth, told reporters in Britain. “She’s the most inspiring, readable author, but to put her on the cover wouldn’t be very inspiring at all.”
Ms. Trayler added that she was also thinking of making over “George Eliot, who was frumpy, and William Wordsworth, who was pretty hideous.”
The Austen makeover is actually fairly convincing, compared to the “forensic” portrait painted in 2002 that hangs in Bath, where Austen lived from 1801 to 1806. The painter, Melissa Dring, who had worked as a police sketch artist, said she based her likeness on contemporary recollections of Austen, which are all pretty vague and don’t say much except that Austen was “very attractive” and “like a doll.” The resulting picture, with excessively large eyes and features that don’t quite fit together, has some of the quality of a wanted poster.
And then there is the so-called Rice Portrait, which Christie’s is putting up for auction on April 19. The painting, the work of the English society artist Ozias Humphry, shows a girl of about 14 or 15 — no great beauty, it has to be said, though at least she’s not scowling — standing in a landscape while wearing a white dress and carrying a parasol.
The owner of the picture, Henry Rice, a sixth-generation descendant of one of Austen’s brothers, says he believes that it depicts his ancestor Jane, and indeed if you squint at it a little, the face does bear a certain resemblance to the one in the Cassandra sketch. Some costume experts, however, believe that the girl’s outfit — empire-waist gown, short hair, flat, slipper-like shoes — didn’t come into fashion until Austen was out of her teens. It was a look popularized by Emma Hamilton after she took up with Lord Nelson and became the ideal of what an 18th-century beauty should look like.
Whether or not buyers believe the picture is of Austen will make a big difference to the sale, of course, and so Christie’s is auctioning the painting in its New York salesroom, presumably on the theory that Americans are less apt to get bogged down in historical nitpicking and may not care that the National Portrait Gallery has turned down the Rice Portrait on five different occasions.
But as long as we have her books, does it matter, really, what Austen looked like? It might matter less if we understood more about her in general; yet in many ways we know less about Austen than we do about Shakespeare, of whom we have many more likenesses, or purported likenesses, as well.
From the few letters that her family did not succeed in burning, we have just a few tantalizing clues: that though she received one marriage proposal (which she first accepted, then turned down) Austen was generally unlucky in love, and suffered from sibling rivalry and bouts of depression and writer’s block. It’s not even possible to infer a whole lot about her from her work, the way that Stephen Greenblatt, for example, so ingeniously pieced together a portrait of Shakespeare and his world from a close reading of his plays.
Austen exists in her novels as a disembodied, quicksilver intelligence — now making a general observation, then slipping into a character’s head, then darting across the room to eavesdrop on a conversation — but from her novels you would scarcely know that England was at war with Napoleon at the time.
Despite what many readers assume, there is not a lot of physical description of people in Austen’s novels; she clearly puts more value on qualities like wit, intelligence and firmness of character — precisely those qualities devotees wish were more in evidence in the sourpuss Cassandra portrait. Yet we know that Austen lived in an age when a woman’s physical attractiveness was, next to her fortune, her greatest asset.
The family believes that the Rice Portrait was commissioned by Austen’s uncle Francis, who wanted to advertise her marriageability — sort of the way debutantes in this country used to have their photographs taken by Fabian Bachrach. If the Cassandra sketch is the truer likeness, then that’s as much a blow to latter-day admirers (who’d like to see at least a hint of the wit and vivacity that so animated her writing) as it might have been to 18th-century suitors.
Austen’s relative lack of interest in exterior appearance may itself be a clue of sorts. She probably wasn’t much of a looker. And why we care must have something to do with might be called the BBC-ification of Austen — the way that her books have, over and over, been transformed into successful movies and highbrow TV series.
We’ve watched them so often that we think we really do know what Austen’s people looked like, and the men — the good ones, anyway — are all hunks and the women are all adorable, with just a hint of gingham-gowned sexiness. That their creator might not be part of this club seems unfair. We can accept that Austen might have been a Cinderella — underappreciated, with an elusive beauty of character and intellect that maybe took a little getting used to — but the dreary spinster of the Cassandra sketch isn’t anyone we recognize.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 17:29