What does a great writer look like?

Watching the BBC documentary on Jane Austen on Boxing Day got me wondering about what a Great Writer should look like. The programme followed Dr Paula Byrne as she tried to authenticate a sketch as an image of Austen, and along the way asked some interesting questions about what this different image might do to our reading of Jane Austen were it accepted as an image of her. One of the most arresting aspects of the programme was how – whether? – this image of a tall, bony, woman writing (she has pen and paper in front of her) and set against a classical architectural backdrop (identified as St Margaret’s Westminster) gives us access to a different Jane Austen from Cassandra’s image of a young, bright-eyed woman with curls escaping from a demure cap. It’s an issue for us on the Great Writers Inspire project, as we source images for our literary texts and themes. Often the images on a website are just decoration, but the Jane Austen programme made me realise that just as we are careful about the provenance of the texts we are using, so too we need to think about the illustrations. Reminds me of the controversy in my own field over a new, or perhaps that should be ‘new’, portrait of Shakespeare: the so-called ‘Cobbe portrait’.

Although the balance of scholarly opinion – with the spirited exception of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon – is that this the Cobbe portrait isn’t a picture of Shakespeare, it has had its adherents, largely because it makes Shakespeare look a nice guy: clever, humane, sensitive – just the Shakespeare we want! Perhaps the same is true of the new image of Jane Austen.

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One Response to What does a great writer look like?

  1. Kate O'Connor says:

    Similarly, although most people now accept that the painting in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge isn’t of Marlowe, we’re all reluctant to let it go; firstly, because it’s our only existing image of the writer, and secondly, because he looks just as we imagine him: roguish, slightly smug, fashionable, young, handsome, and likeable.

    Unfortunately, a project like Great Writers Inspire is constrained so much by which images are public domain or licensed for Creative Commons, sometimes you’re stuck with the image you have, regardless of whether or not it gives the impression you’d like of a given author!

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