Even rarer than a first edition of a Jane Austen novel are images taken of her during her short lifetime. A small watercolor by her sister Cassandra has been reworked over the centuries to make Jane look more attractive. Another watercolor image taken of Jane’s backside as she sits in the grass, a dark silhouette, a small watercolor by James Stanier Clark, and a portrait of Jane at 14 (the validity of the latter two are in question) are all that we have to go by. Verbal descriptions of Jane Austen are also quite rare, and some seem to contradict each other, a few relatives and friends thinking her quite pretty and others declaring that her looks were rather ordinary.
In 1864, Anna Lefroy, Jane Austen’s niece and James Edward Austen-Leigh’s sister, wrote her memories of Aunt Jane in a letter for Edward’s memoir. She apologized that her recollections were so shadowy and that she was unable to grasp anything of substance. She did recall that Jane and Cassandra wore pattens when they walked between Dean and Steventon in “wintry weather through the sloppy lanes”. Pattens, or shoe coverings that protected delicate shoes, were worn by gentlewomen at that time, but they would soon go out of fashion. Anna also described Jane as having a tall and elegant figure, and a “quick firm step,” an observation that she shared with others.
Anna goes on to relate one particularly sweet family story of a 7 year-old Jane and her 3 year-old brother Charles greeting Cassandra, who was returning from a visit with Dr. and Mrs. Cooper at Bath. Jane and Charles had toddled down the lane “as far as New Down to meet the chaise, & have the pleasure of riding home in it.” While the popular perception was that Jane and Cassandra were inseparable, they spent a great deal of time apart.
Young Cassandra frequently visited the Coopers in Bath, and as an adult became a regular guest at Godmersham, her brother Edward’s estate. She was a favorite with the family there, but the young Godmersham children were not quite as fond of Jane. This was not the case with the Jane’s other nieces and nephews, all of whom liked her exceedingly as a playfellow and a teller of stories. In her letter, Anna bemoaned the loss of Jane’s verbal stories, those “happy tales of invention” that she wove out of nothing.
Jane’s niece wrote this observation about her aunt’s image:
“Her complexion of that rather rare sort which seems the peculiar property of light brunettes. A mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear & healthy in hue; the fine naturally curling hair, neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match, & the rather small but well shaped nose.”
Anna concludes, as Cassandra’s portrait attests, that Jane failed to be a decidedly handsome woman. Seventeen years younger than Jane, one wonders if Anna was thinking of an older, more mature Jane, the one who had taken to wearing caps at all times, rather than a younger and prettier Jane with bright sparkling eyes and full round cheeks.
Other posts on this blog about Jane’s image and character sit below:
- A glimpse of Jane Austen: Fanny Knight’s recollection of her aunt Jane
- A glimpse of Jane Austen at Work
- My Take: Jane Austen’s Image
- Jane’s Visage: A Pretty Lively Girl With Grace and Style
- What Did Jane Austen Look Like?
Le Faye, Deirdre. Anna Lefroy’s Original Memories of Jane Austen. The Review of English Studies, New Series, Oxford University Press, Vol 39, #155 (Aug, 1988), pp 417-421.