Sunday, April 01, 2007

It's Not Enough For a Woman To Write Brilliantly--She Has To Look Good Doing It

Today's Week in Review section of the New York Times contains not one but two articles about what Jane Austen looked like--specifically, about the impulse to imagine that a favorite author beloved for her shrewd and sprightly wit was prettier than she probably was. A British publisher has reissued Austen's books with an air-brushed image that adds hair extensions and blush to the only known drawing of the author, and Christies is preparing to auction off a flattering period portrait that the Austen family claims depicts their famous ancestor Jane, although historians and scholars have their doubts.

Jane Austen isn't the only female author to get this treatment. When I wrote my Masters thesis on Emily Dickinson lo these many years ago I was amused to learn about how the great poet's image has been manipulated by her acolytes. Here is the only confirmed portrait of Dickinson, a daggeurotype probably created around 1848, when she would have been eighteen:

Not so bad, although her dress and hairstyle would certainly strike us today as being on the severe side. But this look wasn't acceptable by the late Victorian period, when Dickinson's poetry was being discovered and given its first posthumous publication. Here is how the 1848 portrait was gussied up for publication in the 1890s:
A pretty drastic makeover, wouldn't you say? If you can get past the ruffly collar, check out the lipstick, eyeliner, and nicely-shaped eyebrows someone has given her forty-five years after the fact, along with a cute bobbed hairdo that softens the outline of her face. The gimlet-eyed, unconventional poet has been transformed into a silly-looking debutante.

(Of course, far worse was the way Dickinson's first editors--Thomas W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd--butchered the poems themselves, changing her punctuation and word choice to suit Victorian conventions of style and tone. Accurate versions didn't appear until the 1950s.)

Poor Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. They didn't have the benefit of working with PR specialists to promote themselves and their work. If they had, maybe they'd have orchestrated their own glamour shots, saving their posthumous publishers a lot of trouble. Nobody a century from now will have to retouch this picture of novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, for example:

It would be interesting to read what a contemporary Austen or Dickinson might say about today's People-magazine style treatment of authors. Seems like a suitable topic for evisceration by their sarcastic wit.

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