A new way of picturing Jane Austen

Monday, January 13, 2020

A stretch of the imagination is needed when picturing Jane Austen.

That’s because there are few known reliable portraits of the famed novelist, whose likeness and celebrity are the subject of a recent discovery made by Devoney Looser, ASU Foundation Professor of English, author of “The Making of Jane Austen” and editor of "The Daily Jane Austen."

Looser has unearthed the earliest known piece of Jane Austen fan fiction, a previously unrecorded and virtually unknown pen portrait of Austen from an 1823 issue of The Lady’s Magazine.

The discovery was made possible by a series of advanced keyword searches via a trial subscription of Eighteenth Century Journals provided by the ASU Library.

Looser describes the unknown pen portrait as something of a “lightning bolt,” undoing prior knowledge of Austen’s fame and confirming that the author had a fan following nearly a century earlier than previously thought.

“We used to believe that Austen was obscure in the 1820s, in the early years after she died in 1817,” said Looser, who is a Guggenheim Fellow and National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. “This alone proves that that commonly held belief is a mistaken one. It tells us that people cared about what she looked like and that she was gaining fame in the 1820s.”

Becoming Jane Fisher

The fact that Austen portraits are so scarce and notoriously controversial makes Looser’s discovery all the more significant.

“Surviving descriptions of Austen are rare,” writes Looser in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). “Five months after her death in 1817, her brother Henry Austen famously provided the first. It was an homage to Jane in a pen portrait. … Henry’s description of his sister aimed to inspire admiration, provoke sorrow and whip up author worship. His Jane exceeded the middle height and had a fine complexion, a modest cheek, and a sweet voice. He called her nearly faultless, saying she never uttered a hasty, silly or severe expression.”

Produced just five years after Austen’s death, the newly discovered pen portrait, a “Letter to the Editor of The Lady’s Magazine,” takes the form of a humorous mock letter to the magazine's editor, aptly dated April 1, and offers a vision of Austen alternative to Henry’s cleaned-up portrait.

The fictional letter is written under the pseudonym “Jane Fisher,” who describes herself as an aspiring writer wanting to know more about Austen, her appearance and writing habits.

In the letter, Fisher describes a visit from Austen’s ghost and learns that Austen used to write both during the day and late at night. She goes on to describe her appearance: “At first, I confess, I was somewhat disappointed in the turn of face and features, which had more of plump roundness, and less of expression,” the letter reads.

Looser has evidence to believe that the fictional voice of Fisher could possibly belong to the novelist Mary Russell Mitford, who was well known in her day, a frequent contributor to The Lady’s Magazine, and had several connections to Austen. (Mitford’s mother and friend both knew the Austen family personally.)

“She possibly had eye-witness accounts of what Austen was like,” Looser said. “It’s a vision of her unlike any other we now have.”

'Long hidden in plain sight'

Subscription databases like Eighteenth Century Journals are changing what kinds of discoveries are possible for those students and scholars fortunate enough to have access to them.

Bringing together rare journals that were printed between 1685 and 1835, a period known as the long 18th century, Eighteenth Century Journals — to which the ASU Library now subscribes — enabled Looser to access The Lady’s Magazine, of which few print copies exist.

“There are several copies of the magazine across the world on microfilm,” Looser said, “but the way to find new things long hidden in plain sight now is through keyword searches in full-text databases, which is how I found this amazing piece of fiction on Jane Austen. It describes her nose of genius, her blue dress, lace cap and pink ribbons, and her reputation as a literary role model."

When Looser's piece for the TLS was in proof, she learned that Jennie Batchelor, a professor of 18th-century studies at the University of Kent and the preeminent scholar of The Lady's Magazine, has also been working on this pen portrait and is preparing a book chapter on it for publication. 

Additionally, after reading Looser's TLS piece, Elisa E. Beshero-Bondar, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and director of Digital Mitford: The Mary Russell Mitford Archive, informed Looser of the Digital Mitford project's stylometric research plans to investigate whether "Jane Fisher" shares features with Mitford's known writings.

Looser anticipates future work on the 1823 mock letter and believes other discoveries like it are yet to come. 

“These databases are crucially important to scholars learning new things about the past. They are often the only way to get access to centuries-old materials,” Looser said. “Many people have the mistaken idea that it's all free on Google books at this point. Not so. We need the resources and support of our university libraries."

Lorrie McAllister, associate university librarian for collections and strategy at the ASU Library, added: "Our information environment is truly deep and rich. The simple search box is alluring, yet there is so much more to explore and discover past the first page of search results — in databases, journals, books and a whole multitude of formats. Digging deeper into these resources reaps rewards in scholarship, learning and sometimes just being inspired!"

Interested in learning more about this discovery? Here's a reading (and listening) list:

• Fan fiction or fan fact? An unknown pen portrait of Jane Austen

• Letter to the Editor of The Lady’s Magazine

• Haunted by Miss Austen (podcast)