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The Mysterious Miss Austen
Image Credit: Jane Austen's pelisse
The Mysterious Miss Austen
Image Credit: Jane Austen by Unknown Artist circa 1810-1815, National Gallery, London

The Mysterious Miss Austen

24 May 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Who is Jane Austen? In her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, the heroine Elizabeth Bennett coyly tells Mr Darcy, ‘I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly’ – but much the same might be said of the author herself. For all the fervent admirers of Jane Austen the writer, who continues to win over new fans 200 years on, Jane Austen the woman retains a stubborn reserve, an impregnable mystique. Descriptions vary, letters lie, portraits are partial. With 2017 marking the bicentenary of her death – but her popularity still booming – this posthumous evasiveness only continues to fuel our curiosity, begging the question: will the real Miss Austen please stand up?

‘The Mysterious Miss Austen’ has recently opened at the Winchester Discovery Centre in Austen’s home county of Hampshire, with the aim of exploring what we think we know about the writer and her complex legacy. Commissioned by the Hampshire Cultural Trust to mark Austen’s bicentenary, the exhibition was conceived two years ago and has since gone through various permutations. On entering, an elegant projection beams a simulated Austen in silhouette onto the wall. The silhouette walks in and out of a window of light, arranging her bonnet and reticule, in a display that sets the tone for the whole exhibition: as soon as Austen starts to come into focus, the light changes, and she’s gone again.


Entrance to 'The Mysterious Miss Austen'


The exhibition is divided into three rooms. In the first, the space is dominated by a glass box containing what is said to be Austen’s pelisse: an ankle-length light silk coat dating from between 1812 and 1814. Intriguingly, Austen’s height and shoe size have been extrapolated from the garment (5,6 to 5,8 and size 4 to 6, since you ask) and the rare intimacy of the piece in some ways makes the pelisse the most instantly evocative item on display. This room describes Austen in terms of being a daughter, sister, and writer, and contains various letters from Jane, handwritten in sloping cursive script, to her sister Cassandra; the most famous of these being the letter written immediately following the publication of Pride and Prejudice, in which Jane refers to her newly bound book as ‘my own darling child’.


Jane Austen's pelisse coat

We may feel we know Jane Austen through her prose, but her physical appearance remains the subject of intense debate. The second room of the exhibition assembles six rare portraits of Austen, which, when seen together, have the curious effect of complicating who she was even further. As co-curator Louise West says, ‘a lot of people think very powerfully one of [the portraits], or more, are her. But actually they’re all different. So what is that saying – where is Jane Austen in all of this?’ There is a soft, half-length sketch by her sister Cassandra, a miniature silhouette portrait, and a glamorous watercolour painted by one of Jane’s admirers (who was librarian to the Prince Regent), but each one just seems to be a narrow shard of a fractured whole – to the extent that they could even be depicting entirely different women.



The final room brings the exhibit to the present day, in considering the ‘Austen Brand’ and the evolution of her legacy. This room is in many ways the most thought-provoking of the three, charting as it does the popular response to her work: the litany of film adaptations, as well as all the sequels, prequels, spin offs and Bridget Jones's, and how her name has become synonymous with certain themes. Visitors may be interested to learn of the existence of ‘Jane-o-poly’ (for those who find the standard ‘Monopoly’ game too blindingly modern); an Austenized version of the classic board game in which community chest card messages read things like: ‘Your watercolour painting of a pug sold at the Christmas Bazaar for £15’.


Winchester Discovery Centre 2016

Of course, the warm compost bin of popularity has a tendency to break down all original material into the mulch of cliché, so that many people will now associate Austen with Darcy, bonnets, posh country houses and little else. This last room also houses a giant ceramic piece by artist Grayson Perry entitled ‘Jane Austen in E17’ (the Walthamstow postcode), showcasing his trademark mischievous subversion of cultural hierarchies. The pot is printed with Austen-esque ladies in Regency dress sitting sipping tea, with ads, photos and tabloid cuttings from the E17 area swirling around them. Old-fashioned, fake English primness is suitably skewered, and gossip is shown to be timeless.



As the curators make clear throughout, this is not a didactic exhibition. More questions are posed than resolved, and the cloud of mystery still hangs heavily over Austen by the end. What this exhibition does well is to fill in some gaps in our own perception of her, asking us why she matters, without crudely unmasking her entirely or wading too far into the waters of conjecture. The biographies of great authors are constantly invoked to ‘explain’ their work – particularly if they are female – and it can sometimes be worth asking ourselves what true purpose this serves. To quote West, ‘I don’t think we’ll ever know the whole woman, and maybe that’s the way she wanted it.’

The Mysterious Miss Austen is running until 24 July at Winchester Discovery Centre. See the exhibition website for more information.

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