Jane Austen has a little work done.

Last Sunday's New York Times featured an article about the minor flap over a publisher's decision to prettify one of the few known images of Jane Austen for a reissued biography. I don't particularly care about this one way or the other--and I don't think Jane would have, either, so long as she didn't look like Regency Barbie and her books kept selling--but I do take issue with the Times writer's assertion that "there is not a lot of physical description of people in Austen’s novels", which he seems to take as proof that she didn't put much emphasis on physical attractiveness.

While Austen didn't spend much time describing the details of her characters' appearances, she was always hyper-aware of their physical charms. Austen's concept of courtship was warlike, and all of her characters, male and female, have a clearly defined list of available weapons: varying levels of beauty, charm, virtue, fortune, and common sense. If a character was only moderately attractive (Catherine Morland, Anne Elliot, Colonel Brandon), Austen pointed that out, and duly noted the deficiency in that character's arsenal. Highly attractive characters, like Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, are strong on the beauty front, but hampered by their lack of fortune--and, to a certain extent, their virtue, which is tainted by their family's behavior. Austen may not have told us much about Mr. Darcy's broad shoulders or Emma Woodhouse's dainty ankles, but that doesn't mean that she thought broad shoulders or dainty ankles were unimportant.

[Above: Wordsworth Editions' new-and-questionably-improved image of Jane Austen]
Posted by: Julianka


04 Apr, 2007 05:11 PM @ version 0

My favorite example of Austen's ability to give the sense of someone's appearance without actually describing it comes from Sense and Sensibility, when she describes Robert Ferrars:

"...a person and face, of strong, natural, sterling insignificance, though adorned in the first style of fashion"

She doesn't mention his weak chin or whatever, but we can all picture this guy for ourselves!

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