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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Some scholarly views on the Beechen Cliff portrait

I did a little checking online and found a couple of interesting descriptions and analyses of the "backfacing" portrait by Cassandra

First this one by Margaret Kirkham:

"The 1804 sketch: This is a watercolour drawing, signed C.E.A (Cassandra Elizabeth Austen) and dated 1804 (see frontispiece). Identification of the sitter as Jane Austen is confirmed in a letter by her niece, Anna Lefroy, to JEAL in 1862, in which 'a sketch which Aunt Cassandra made of her on one of their expeditions--sitting down out of doors on a hot day, with her bonnet strings untied' is mentioned. It is also probably referred to in a letter of Henry Austen to Richard Bentley in 1832...It is still owned in the Austen family. RW Chapman did his best for this portrait, saying: 'it shows the graceful outline of a seated lady, and has nothing inconsistent with what is known of JA's figure'....Not everyone agrees; David Nokes says it offers 'a rear view of a plump, dumpy woman seated on a tuft or stool, gazing away from us into a white blankness'. Claudia Johnson has suggested this faceless sketch has a wry appropriateness; it 'reaches us in much the same way as the celebrated irony of her writing does, only by turning away'..."

And I also found the following written by David Nokes, from which Kirkham had quoted only a small portion, above:

"..the Austens spent part of the summer [of 1802] with Charles in Devonshire...and the rest of it in Wales, travelling as far west as Tenby and as far north as Barmouth. Somewhere on this trip, Cassandra made a watercolour sketch of her sister...'I would give a good deal, that is, as much as I could afford,' Anna Lefroy later commented, 'for a sketch [see quote, above]'. Yet this curious, unprepossessing sketch only reinforces the strange, enigmatic image of her sister which Cassandra seems determined to present. The sketch offers a rear view of a plump, dumpy woman seated on a tuft or stool, gazing away from us into a white vacant blankness. The woman's face and expression are completely hidden, for not only is the head turned away, but even the back of the head is concealed by a large blue bonnet which, though its strings are untied, remains very firmly in place. All that we can glimpse is the merest hint of a plump, pink child like curve of cheek. The woman's body is enveloped in a long blue gown whose generous folds unflatteringly suggest a somewhat ample figure beneath. Although in some ways charmingly informal, what this sketch does is to depersonalize Jane Austen, rendering her not as as a character, but as a shape. Seated beneath a tree, it is a shape which suggests nursery associations; this blue bonneted female hardly seems adult at all; she is an innocent childlike Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet. By destroying her sister's letters, and refusing to draw her adult facial expression, it is Cassandra who most contrived to make a mystery of Jane Austen."

I have the following reactions to the above:

1. Kirkham refers to a date of 1804 on the frontispiece. That would seem to settle the confusion as to the date of composition, if accurate. And 1804 is exactly when we know that Jane and Cassandra were still living in Bath, and so that would add force to my argument that the portrait was done in Bath, and Beechen Cliff would be exactly the place near Bath where Jane and CEA would have gone on an "expedition".

However, to give an alternative its due, we also have Letter 39 that JA wrote from Lyme in mid-September 1804 to CEA in Ibthorp, in which we learn that CEA had, earlier that week, been in Weymouth (only a short distance east of Lyme Regis along the English southern coast). So it is possible that CEA was with JA and the other Austens in Lyme Regis _before_ leaving for Weymouth, and it is therefore also possible that the portrait might have been done by CEA at some scenic spot outside of Lyme Regis. I still lean toward Beechen Cliff, though, because the Austens lived there during most of 1804, whereas I would imagine JA was only in Lyme Regis that one trip.

2. Nokes gets the date wrong, and therefore his speculation as to its being painted in Wales would also appear to be wrong. However, I find Nokes's comments about the portrait very interesting, he clearly has given it a lot of thought and careful examination. I agree that the figure of the woman is not slim, as JA appears in other descriptions. Nokes somehow sees that as a girl's body ("nursery associations"). I see "nursery" associations in a very different way---when, after all, is a normally thin woman much heavier? and when does a woman ever assume the particular pose that is shown in the portrait? The only answer that fits both of those criteria is "while in childbirth"! An association which just happens to fit with my notion that this portrait is in some way also a portrait of Mrs. Tilney, the symbol of English wives dying in childbirth.

3. I like that both Nokes and Johnson pick up on the concealment in the picture, both of the features of the woman, and also of what she is looking at! It's pretty obvious that there is some reason why Kirkham, Nokes, and Johnson, as well as Linda Walker, Diane and I, all find something very mysterious and curious in this picture, and I remain convinced that Northanger Abbey is the ultimate key to its deepest meanings.

So there.

Cheers, ARNIE

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