Recently I’ve been struck by how much stock some people put into Jane Austen’s looks and how much a number of her fans (or critics) NEED her to be pretty. As if beauty would enhance her talent or add pathos to the fact that she never married. As if a plain Jane has somehow less cache than a beautiful spinster who chose independence over marriage.
I’ve said over and over again that I like Jane Austen just as she is, no more and no less. She does not need to have Anne Hathaway’s striking looks to make me appreciate her talent. Besides, beauty and attractiveness are influenced by a number of factors: Physique, facial features, liveliness of wit, excellence of mind, shiny hair, excellent skin and teeth, attractive voice and smile, personality, and the love and admiration of those closest to the individual.
Contemporary accounts of Jane vary according to the person describing her. Those who loved her, like Eliza de Feuillide, practically gushed over her looks. Others, like Philadelphia Walter, were not in the least complimentary. Here is her description of a thirteen-year-old Jane. She evidently preferred Cassandra, who she felt resembled her in feature:
Yesterday I began an acquaintance with my 2 female cousins, Austens. My uncle, aunt, Cassandra & Jane arrived at Mr. F. Austen’s the day before. We dined with them there. As it is pure Nature to love ourselves, I may be allowed to give the preference to the Eldest who is generally reckoned a most striking resemblance of me in features, complexion & manners…The youngest (Jane) is very like her brother Henry, not at all pretty & very prim, unlike a girl of twelve: but it is a hasty judgment which you will scold me for. My aunt has lost several fore-teeth which makes her look old: my uncle is quite white-haired, but looks vastly well: all in high spirits & disposed to be pleased with each other…Yesterday they all spent the day with us, & the more I see of Cassandra the more I admire [her] – Jane is whimsical and affected.*
While Philadelphia was less than complimentary to a young and budding Jane, her brother Henry wrote this touching description just months after Jane’s death:
Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivaled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek. Her voice was extremely sweet. She delivered herself with fluency and precision. Indeed she was formed for elegant and rational society, excelling in conversation as much as in composition.
In old age, Egerton Brydges, Madame Lefroy’s brother, recorded his impression of Jane:
My eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight, and delicate but with cheeks a little too full.
By most accounts, Jane had a liveliness of expression and quickness of wit that attracted people to her. Yes, her cheeks might have been too round and she might not have been regarded a great beauty, but she attracted a number of suitors in her youth and was beloved and admired by her family and friends … and an untold number of readers several hundred years after her death.
*From: A Portrait of Jane Austen, David Cecil, 1978, ISBN 0-8090-7811-2
Image: Watercolour portrait of Jane by Cassandra