Today's posting is contributed by the art historian, Alan Saxe-Popette.
Jane Austen's private life has been thoroughly explored for events of dramatic interest. It is therefore a wonder that there has been such inattention to the portrait, identified some forty years ago, that pictures the nude novelist reclining on a green baize fainting couch. One would have supposed that writers of fiction and especially film directors would have seized on the opportunities that the portrait presents, especially since the only other surviving representation of Jane Austen is her sister Cassandra's amateurish, unflattering, and essentially asexual sketch. The Austen nude has faded inexplicably from view. Older readers will surely remember the mid-1960s flurry of journalistic interest, some of it nasty and anti-feminist -- a cover story in Time ("Did Jane Disrobe") as well as the scandalmongering reportage of Huntley and Brinkley. But just like the revelations concerning Wordsworth's French mistress and like the notoriety that greeted Edith Wharton's pornographic short story Beatrice Palmato, the brouhaha over the Austen nude quickly evaporated.
The portrait itself, a full-length study in chalk and colored pencils, resides in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and his Circle, which is housed in Room 319 of the New York Public Library, where it may be viewed upon request. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the account of the Austen nude first appeared in the pages of the Keats-Shelley Journal, a publication sponsored by the Pforzheimer. More scholarly attention might have been paid if the identification of the portrait had been announced in a journal of larger circulation, such as Nineteenth-Century Fiction or Romantic Studies.
The late R. W. Chapman, who knew more about Jane Austen than any scholar of his generation, resisted the idea that the portrait was genuine. His attack on its authenticity, published as an appendix to the revised edition of the Complete Works of Jane Austen, is scathing, but is rather a consequence of Chapman's Victorian prejudices than of the facts. Chapman was a traditionalist who believed that young females, even brilliant female novelists, should be, above all, decorous. His Jane Austen was a bulwark of conservative and hierarchical values and he would certainly not have recognized the modern revisionist conception that situates the novelist in an uneasy alliance with transgression and subversion. In private, moreover, Chapman was notoriously prudish. He is reported to have confessed to his great friend Kathleen Tillotson (herself a well-known scholar of English fiction) that "I just don't want to go to my grave thinking that I've looked upon dear Miss Austen's pubic hair."
In the 1960s, there was considerable resistance to the authenticity of the portrait, perhaps because, compared to Cassandra's prim drawing, the new rendering revealed a young woman in full beauty and bloom. Jane retains the familiar apple cheeks and the dark hair, but her eyes are knowing and forthright rather than subdued, and her long, glossy and loose black locks, secured only by a single cherry-colored ribbon, appear as they were described by Jane Austen's grand-niece, who recalled her aunt having "large dark eyes and a brilliant complexion, and long long black hair down to her knees." Opinions will of course vary, but many will find that in this portrait, Jane looks somewhat Italian or Gypsy or perhaps even Levantine. Her expression is eager, her waist slim, her legs short but shapely, and her breasts, despite their surprisingly large aureoles, magnificent.
Misgivings about the portrait's authenticity survived even until the 1970s. But then it was established that the chamber in which Austen posed was the drawing room at Steventon that she shared with Cassandra. There's a useful description in Constance Hill's Jane Austen, Her Homes and Friends (1902). Hill, it is well known, had access to the Lefroy family papers. The Lefroys were important connections of the Austens. It was James Lefroy who wooed Jane and then inexplicably broke off his relationship with her and retired to Ireland. Jane's brother James Austen's daughter married a Lefroy; Jane's grand-niece Anna Lefroy, the child of this union, left a remembrance of her great-aunt's sitting room. "I remember," wrote Anna, "the common looking carpet with its chocolate ground that covered the floor, and some portions of furniture. A pointed press, with shelves above for books, that stood with its back on the wall next the Bedroom, & opposite the fireplace; my Aunt Jane's Pianoforte -- & above all, on a table between the windows, above which hung a looking glass, 2 tonbridge-ware work boxes of oval shape, fitted up with ivory barrels containing reels for silk, yard measures, etc." In the portrait, these two same oval Tunbridge work-boxes appear just to the left and behind Jane Austen's head; the keyboard of "Aunt Jane's Pianoforte" is in part visible to the right; the oval cheval-glass is exactly as Anna described it. Moreover, the ingenious young art historian Oksana Sartry, who, using powerful magnifiers, was able to identify the books in the press, discovered not only Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison and Robert Bage's Hermsprong, both novels known to have been much studied by Austen, but also a folio with the words "Volume the Second" inscribed on its spine. "Volume the Second" was the name that the novelist gave her manuscript collection of early works (which included the unfinished novel, The Watsons). With this confirmatory evidence, skepticism was at last dispelled. Austen's remark to her sister Cassandra (reporting on a day spent with James Lefroy), "imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking" took on new meaning. And what did Jane mean when she wrote to her sister, "here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted."
What was the exact occasion for the portrait and why was it found among the Lefroy papers? There are two views. The first is that Jane sent it to James Lefroy as part of the courtship process: "here's what you get if you marry me." This explanation is certainly possible, but the greater likelihood is that it was a "revenge" portrait: "here's what you have scorned."
That the drawing has sexual content is undeniable, but it is absurd to think, as some have suggested, that Jane Austen would allow herself to be depicted in a post-orgasmic state. It is true that Jane's skin is rosy and flushed and that her plump nipples are erect, but the placement of her hand just above the tendrils of abundant black hair is traditional and would not seem to indicate that she had pleasured herself. Those who argue that Jane had recently masturbated seem, frankly, to have surrendered to prurience. I myself, after the very closest scrutiny, can discover no evidence whatsoever of what one writer has called "a clitoral cleft in arousal." Jane Austen was bold, but she would never, ever, have exceeded the bounds of modesty.