It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. But is it a truth, universally acknowledged that this is an accurate depiction of Miss Austen?

Portrait of Jane Austen
From a watercolour by James Andrews of Maidenhead based on an unfinished work by Cassandra Austen. Engraving by William Home Lizars., Jane Austen, from A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

This portrait, which is featured in a Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh, was based on the only known image of Jane, a sketch made by her sister, Cassandra. There was much debate in the family as to the accuracy of this likeness. 1

When viewing Cassandra’s original sketch, it is clear that some artistic license has been taken:

Sketch of Jane Austen
Cassandra Austen, CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Whether or not the likeness is accurate, it is Austen’s words, and not her image, that she is remembered for. 

Although she is known for her romances, Jane herself never married. She was engaged for just one day to the rather Austen-esquely named Harris Bigg-Wither, before deciding that she could not marry for money. 2 Jane’s marital history looks far more interesting when viewed through the Steventon parish register where her father was rector. Jane recorded three fictitious announcements here including:

-A banns of marriage between Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam of London and Jane Austen of Steventon
-A marriage to Edmund Arthur William Mortimer Esquire of Liverpool
-A marriage between Jack Smith and Jane Smith late Austen 3

The parish register is held by the Hampshire County Council and an image of one of Jane’s entry can be seen in the BBC News article ‘Mischievous’ Jane Austen ‘made up’ marriage records  

The appeal of Jane’s books has only grown over the 200 odd years since their first publication. She has become very much a part of popular culture with conventions held in her honour, board games, and modern-day interpretations of her work abounding (think Clueless, Bride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary). 

A large sculpture based on Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has also done the rounds. Initially the sculpture was located in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake before being toured around various UK destinations and finally being acquired by the National Trust of Australia in 2014 who transported him down to the lake of Elsternwick’s Ripponlea Estate to feature as part of their Love, Desire and Riches exhibition. 4  

State Library Victoria has recently acquired the first colour-illustrated edition of Jane’s major works, published in 1897 and presented in their own beautiful travel case. This set includes Sense & SensibilityPride & PrejudiceMansfield ParkEmmaNorthanger Abbey and Persuasion and will be featured in an upcoming display in the Library’s World of the book exhibition.

Photos of first edition illustrated collection of Jane Austen novels.
The Novels of Jane Austen, edited by Reginald Brimley Johnson; with coloured illustrations by C.E. and H.M. Brock (London, J.M. Dent, 1897), Rare Books Collection. Photos by Leah Williams, Preservation Technician. Book cradles created by Ian Cox, Conservator, Books.

More to explore

Why do the works of Austen remain so beloved? Find out for yourself… 

View our collection of online Jane Austen novels 
(You will need a State Library Victoria barcode to access these titles. Not a member yet? It’s quick and easy to sign up online

Read books about Jane (biography)

Explore Letters by Jane:
Jane Austen : the Chawton letters / edited with an introduction by Kathryn Sutherland. 
Jane Austen’s letters / collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye. 

Explore Jane Austen journals : 
Persuasions (Online) by the Jane Austen Society of North America 
Report for the period … / the Jane Austen Society. 
Observations / the Jane Austen Society of Melbourne. 

You may also like
  1. National Portrait Gallery. n.d. Jane Austen.
  2. Lerman, R. (2000). The sense and sensibility of Jane Austen. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 21(2).
  3. Fullerton, S. (1997). “We shall call it Waterloo Crescent”: Jane Austen’s art of naming. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 19.
  4. Dow, A. (2014, May 07). Big ‘wet-shirt’ hunk set to hit town. The Age.

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