A curious thing: I was on NPR's Weekend Edition this morning, interviewed by Linda Wertheimer. Wow. How about them apples?
And while I'm at it, another curious thing—with all the focus on Jane Austen lately (new movies, new Austen-inspired books, general Austen love fest), there’s emerged much speculation on her looks. I’ve read more than one snarky journalist bemoan the fact that Austen wasn’t a looker. They say such things as, “Isn’t it a shame that the writer of Pride and Prejudice herself wasn’t attractive enough to bag a husband? Her fans mourn the fact that she didn’t look like her movie-version heroines.”
Um, you couldn’t be more wrong, daddy-o. And it may not only be for the reason that you guess. Sure, we might take the high road here and argue it’s not a person’s outer appearance but inner…so on, so forth…and that’s why we don’t care whether or not Austen was pretty. Certainly that’s true, but there’s so much more. We don’t need Jane Austen to be the ideal of feminine beauty because she’s not our romantic interest—instead, and far more importantly, she’s the ideal of our best friend.
Who else in all of history would we rather sit beside at a boring meeting than the woman who once said, “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal." Who else would we rather sent us a letter from home than she who wrote to her sister, "You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert's servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not." We love her because we love her thoughts, her words, her delicious way of looking askance at the world. Whenever we’re in the midst of reading Austen, we walk around with a touch of her sensibility, as if her witty, sardonic voice were a ghost over our shoulder, and our thoughts began to see the world as she might. It’s delightful and often vital to keep her voice with us, especially at those moments when we’re in danger of taking it all too seriously. Having romance issues? Too often subjected to the pompous and the snide? You, my friend, need a little dose of Jane.
So who among us would actually wish that Jane Austen looked like Keira Knightly? The Pride and Prejudice star may be nice to watch on the big screen, but can you imagine vegging out with that skinny beauty? Her fitness routine includes eating no carbs after four p.m. I mean, really. Of course we don’t need Austen to be breathlessly beautiful because, let’s face it, we’re not. Thank goodness. Those kinds of women are beyond irritating—the kind who only want to hang out when they’re temporarily boyfriend-less, the kind who go with you to a party but leave you to drive home alone.
No, we’re not that woman, so we don’t want Jane Austen to be either. But some folk just don’t get it. Case in point: The only known portrait of Austen is a sketch done by her sister Cassandra, a likeness that some have described as “dreary.” For a new edition of Austen’s works, publishers have prettified the sketch, dolling her up to supposedly increase her appeal.
Well, excuse us, but we LOVE the portrait as is. Austen has her arms folded, looking to one side, as if saying, “Come on, Cassandra, I want to get back to my writing. Mary Musgrove is just about to say something horrifying.” She’s got lines under her eyes, making her look a bit tired but also intensely human. She’s no slouch—she’s curled her hair, made herself nice. She doesn’t have the glazed, sterile expression of one trying to look her best, she’s not airbrushed and falsely perfected. Cassandra has caught Jane in a tangible attitude. She’s the woman we love caught at an off moment, but nothing a girl’s night out and a chocolate mint milkshake won’t cure.
All this speculation and lamenting Austen’s looks is pointless. We her loyal readers don’t wonder whether or not Austen was beautiful—we already know. She wasn’t a starlet and she wasn’t a hag. She was a woman, just like us, sorta pretty and sorta plain, who sometimes caught an admiring eye but often didn’t, who mostly spent the party at the side of the room, observing, exchanging witty remarks, and laughing herself sick with a best friend. Us. Whenever we’re reading her books, we shamelessly claim Jane Austen as our best friend. And if she were ever to ask us, “How do I look?” We’d say without hesitation, “Jane honey, you look divine.”