Diana Birchall just wrote in Austen L and Janeites: "The truth about the Portrait, I think is easier to discern than the truth about the Will."
I am very glad to be 100% in agreement with you, Diana, as I wrote earlier this week....
...you have indeed amplified and extended the debunking comments that numerous other folks (just browse in the comments by people responding to any of the various online articles reporting Byrne's "discovery") have made to date.
[Diana] "Ellen writes: 'Cassandra's portrait is of a fully adult woman whose mouth, eyes and body language show some world-weariness.' That's right. It's not a sweet, sentimental chocolate box picture, as it was later bowdlerized into. Yet Paula Byrne is quoted as saying, "The previous portrait is a very sentimentalised Victorian view of 'Aunt Jane.'" What is that supposed to mean? The view presented by a late altered portrait is not pertinent."
Of course! This is as bad as the kind of spin doctoring and gross distortion of plain reality that you hear every day during a political campaign. As I stated in my post, CEA's portrait is the very opposite of a sentimental portrait--and that's exactly why JEAL and others prefer the Bowdlerized versions of it which neuter Jane Austen of her strength, independence and (earned) pride in her own (amazing) accomplishments.
[Diana] "I'm sorry to say Byrne seems completely disingenuous. She says, "When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it." Are you kidding me? She's trying to make us believe her husband thought he was just buying a nice lady writer picture? What about it being discussed four years ago by Deirdre Le Faye as a "possible" Austen, and that it had "Jane Austin" (sp) written on the back? Byrne and her husband discovered that, did they? "Oh, my goodness, dear! Look here, this may really be Jane Austen!" I don't think so. They didn't discover it. They bought it to use as part of their campaign to build Byrne up as the author of *the* new major biography. It's their bid for heavyweight major league fame. Yet they're going about it in a cheap manner, with a documentary as publicity to showcase "their" discovery. But it's not their discovery. It's their calculated purchase."
JA anticipated such flimflam as you've so perfectly encapsulated when she wrote:
"You saw her answer!—you WROTE her answer too. Emma, this is your doing. You persuaded her to refuse him."
[Diana] "Most regrettably, the Guardian article is a lying farrago from start to finish. Note how they present the sequence: "when Byrne...with an Austen biography due out in 2013, was given a portrait of a female author acquired by her husband, Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, at auction, she was immediately struck by the possibility that it could be a lost drawing of Austen." Again: What? Immediately struck? She was not *aware* that the picture had been bruited about as a possible? There have been articles about it. I've read them. She, the pre-eminent scholar, hadn't? Give me a break. That's why they were AT that auction in the first place!"
As you and I have noted, Diana, what about the name "Miss Jane Austin" inscribed on the back! Is Byrne trying to suggest that the brochure at the auction did not mention this handwritten notation, a fact which the auctioneer would have wished to hype to the max in order to increase the bids for it? Absurd! Byrne is about as convincing as Herman Cain denying the allegations against him. Her arguments are shocking, actually, in their patent ineptitude.
And actually and ironically, it is still possible that the portrait IS genuine--perhaps some additional objective evidence will be adduced at some point which will support the claim that it is of Jane Austen.
But as you say, what we know for sure is not genuine is the narrative of serendipitous discovery that Byrne has presented. Had she simply said that she and her husband thought Le Faye and other skeptics about the portrait were wrong, and bought it anyway, she'd have 100 times more credibility than she now has.
[Diana] "Then she says, "The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn't exist." What does she mean, it doesn't exist? What was Jane Eyre doing, for instance, but drawing "fancy portraits" of people from imagination? Obviously it was a thing people did do."
And as I said, most of all, _all_ of Christian art over two thousand years!
[Diana] "And when she asks, "Why would someone have wanted to draw her from their imagination, when she was not popular at that time?" Well, maybe after Austen's death, those who lost her wanted to remember her. How about that for a reason? I like the portrait, I think it does have a family resemblance, but I'm certainly put off by Byrne's reasoning, falsity, and shameless grab for "discovery." Byrne and her husband didn't discover it. To me this resembles the "arsenic" story as a vehicle for book promotion. It's all about the limelight and nothing but the limelight - for them. Jane Austen doesn't need it, they do. Funny how both of these stories turned up at once; it's the way things are done in book promotion now. Find some manuscript or picture, hook your book to it, the truth doesn't matter, all that matters is what you make the public think. The public, not thinking about it very hard, now thinks that Jane Austen may have been murdered with arsenic, and that a brilliant scholar uncovered a new portrait of Jane Austen. Let's buy their books! And they may be good books, too. This means more sales of these good books, so where's the problem?"
I think Ashford comes across as positively restrained in comparison to Byrne. Yes, Ashford is publicizing her novel, but her public comments do not overreach at all, in my opinion. She freely acknowledges that even if there was arsenic in JA's body at death, it does not mean that she was deliberately poisoned. And I do believe her novel is extremely well researched vis a vis JA's known biography. It's the best sort of fanfic.
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