Early in Letter 85, writing from London to CEA in Chawton, JA effuses about a portrait she saw that day which reminds her, with great specificity, of Mrs. Bingley (i.e., the former Miss Jane Bennet):
“…Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased-particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy;-perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time;-I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Paintings which is now shewing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit.-Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in Yellow.”
Later in Letter 85, JA returns to the topic of real life portraits of characters in P&P when she writes:
“We have been both to the Exhibition & Sir J. Reynolds',-and I am disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs. D. at either. I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye.-I can imagine he wd have that sort of feeling-that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.-Setting aside this disappointment, I had great amusement among the Pictures…”
These passages have been oft noted by Austen scholars as light-hearted, and ultimately insignificant examples of JA’s ebullient and justified pride as she visits Henry in London. She already knows that her “darling child” is by then already the buzz of the literati, and so she imagines her heroines’ faces hanging on walls and admired by all, the way Lizzy admires the Darcy portraits at Pemberley.
However, following the trail of an interpretation of P&P that I had been developing for a while before then, a year ago, I discovered a very surprising alternative significance of the above passages. I.e., based on various pieces of evidence which I quickly found with the aid of ILL and scholarly databases, I presented evidence at the end of my address to the JASNA SW California chapter a year ago, supporting my claim that the portrait of “Mrs. Bingley” which JA playfully refers to in Letter 85 was an actual real life portrait, which, in turn, was _strongly_ linked to, of all women, the most famous _courtesan_ of the Regency Era, Harriette Wilson!
As many of you already know, Harriette Wilson, 5 years after JA’s death, published the most scandalous tell-all memoir of the Regency Era, famously excluding therefrom only those illustrious clients who paid handsomely for her silence.
I concluded that final segment of my presentation by suggesting, in perfect seriousness, that, in (the recently published) P&P, Jane Austen very consciously intended to represent Harriette Wilson in the character of Jane Bennet, and, further, that Harriette Wilson’s most high profile client, the Prince Regent, was represented by none other than the “Prince” of Pemberley himself, the “First Gentleman of Austenland”, Mr. Darcy himself!
Make of all that what you will, pending my publication of the supporting evidence for those claims.
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