I was never a fan of Jane Austen until I took a class that focused on her Aristotelian plot strategies and the core literary merit of her writing. Having converted in a traditional literary sense, then, it’s very difficult for me to take the pop culture Austen that has flooded US chick lit and the media. Nowadays a Janeite can be someone whose other favorite books include Confessions of a Shopaholic. In fact, one of my most recent book store shocks came when I discovered a book titled Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, detailing the adventures of a woman who is thrown by some sort of time warp into Regency England.
One of the most ridiculous symptoms of this chick lit take on Jane Austen is the recent “makeover” of Austen’s portrait for Wordsworth Editions.
The only uncontested portrait of Jane was drawn by her sister Cassandra in 1810 (Austen was 35) and is on the left side below:
This portrait has been described as “hideously unlike” Jane by Austen’s niece Anna. While it is the only uncontested portrait of Austen (the Rice portrait has always been a great controversy), the sketch does not seem to line up with familial descriptions.
Wordsworth’s version of Jane is the picture to the right of Cassandra’s portrait. Helen Traylor, managing director of the publisher, explains the publisher’s choice:
“The poor old thing didn’t have anything going for her in the way of looks. Her original portrait is very, very dowdy. It wouldn’t be appealing to readers, so I took it upon myself to commission a new picture of her.
“We’ve given her a bit of a makeover, with make-up and some hair extensions and removed her nightcap. Now she looks great — as if she’s just walked out of a salon.”
Nor is Traylor shy about her opinions of other authors’ looks. Since Wordsworth Editions tries to place author portraits on their covers when aesthetics “allow,” Traylor is also evaluating the makeover possibilities for other authors. “Virginia Woolf wasn’t much of a looker,” she says. “I’m also considering making over George Eliot, who was frumpy, and William Wordsworth, who was pretty hideous. Most poets were really unattractive, with the one exception being Tennyson, who has wonderful bone structure.”
Portrait of George Eliot:
Since this is one of the most common portraits of Eliot, I can only imagine that soon she will be remade into a likeness of Catherine Zeta Jones. After all, we wouldn’t want an author looking as though she hadn’t just “walked out of a salon.”