Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Sense and Prejudice

Comes word that a scholar is pretty certain that she’s in possession of a contemporaneous portrait of Jane Austen, making it, apparently, only the second authenticated likeness of the writer, and compared to the grumpy-looking one that’s been knocking around for two centuries (there’s also one drawing with her back to us, but what good is that, exactly?), this is one that shows her seemingly confident and content. Still not exactly the girl you’d ask to the prom, but not one who would say no if you did, or glare at you, castratingly. There’s a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this portrait; sad to say, also a bit of Tony Bennett.

What Austen looked like has been a topic of much interest among those who are interested in such things, a lot of Janeites among them. Was she pretty, but shy, and wrote out of unrequited crushes? Was she plain, but a dreamer? Was she, despite the biographical material, a painted-up girl who, between novels, liked to party hearty? Was she describing herself when she wrote about Miss Bennet? Was it an idealized version of herself? Or was it not her at all, physically – maybe she skewed closer to Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the Cute-o-Meter.

But who, besides academics and superficial fangirls, cares, really? There’s not a clue, except maybe the rumor of blindness, about what Homer may have looked like (if, in fact, there even was a historical Homer, one person who spun the Iliad and Odyssey tales). And the many “likenesses” of Shakespeare (another guy who is Existence Challenged) run the appearance spectrum between Johnny Depp and Clarabell.

Does anatomy determine destiny in the writing field? To a degree, it can – a true lack of physical beauty, coupled with a knowledge of it that cripples social intercourse, can lead  one to imprison oneself in a cloistered life in which writing is the escape/therapy. 

But, short of disinterment and forensic investigation, whether this current “portrait” of Jane Austen resembles Jane Austen is just a lot of twaddle. If you want to know, if you need to know, if you have even a smidgen of interest in knowing what Austen looked like, read her books. She’ll be in her characters, probably dispersed around, with a little bit of her in one character, a tad in another. But (and I can hear the Janeites keening on this one) don’t concentrate too much on the people in her books because, although they are the mechanisms that perform actions and have consequences and rewards bestowed on them because of their actions, they are a fairly similar and interchangeable lot living fairly similar plots, book to book. Rather, what Jane Austen looks like is in her places. More than in any other way in her writing does Austen reveal her true self, the most accurate reflection of her, than in her loving descriptions of the England she knew or imagined.

You want to know what Jane Austen looked like? She has the grandeur of Pemberley, the  warm plainness of the Bennet house, the unhappy harshness of Barton Cottage, the breathtaking sweep of Derbyshire and the Peak District, the classist Cinderella awkwardness created by being in Mansfield Park … you get the picture. Placeness as art, art in placeness, self-image as place.

What did Jane Austen look like? Just read. You’ll see her. And the portrait comes in a very nice frame.


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Shhh … Placeness in Progress

Memo from the Sudden Epiphany Dept.: All this year we’ve been writing, here, about places, and the concept of placeness, and placeness as art, and, deeper within our analyses and explorations, what placeness means, and what art is, or can be, or should be. Heady stuff, indeed, for mere mortals.

But, looking over our eight-month-long string of essays, we noticed a common thread that we hadn’t noticed before; and that is, that every location that we have discussed as being imbued with placeness has been someplace peaceful, quiet, a place of near-silent  reflection. No Niagaras, but rural fields and empty lots and vacated rooms. No bustling city corners, but rather the oases that are respites from the surrounding urban hubbub. No shouts, just echoes.

So, what does this mean? Is this just our personal preferences coloring our intellectualizing? It’s too consistent to be coincidence. It can’t mean that art is a quiet thing; after all, “Guernica” screams, and Shakespeare was, often, no shrinking violet.

But, it is possible that, objectively, what gives a place placeness is its whispering heart touching our receptive and reflective soul? Is it conceivable that what placeness possesses when it is art, and especially when it is great art, is its soft soundless touch, even if it comes after a loud slap? Is artful placeness the ripple in the pond, not the thrown stone and splash that caused the ripple, and which we did not have to be there to observe?

Or, again, is it just us, and your mileage may vary? Some want the unspoken apartness of a monastery; others want to handle snakes and cry out in tongues. Both consider their actions as tapping into the holy. Is placeness only in the hushed chapel and not the rollicking evangelical tent? Is art to be found only in the former, or is it just a question of different art?

Lots of questions.

Ultimately, here, it’s our ride and our dime, and what we determine has placeness is what has placeness … in our determination. But, as with waves of energy and subatomic particles, there may be more things out there, Horatio, than we can see and know and be informed by … and changed by.

For now, our work-in-progress definition of placeness and the art-ness of it feels right to us, and thinks right to us. We seem to be on the right track … it seems. But, like places and people, and everything there is, change is possible, maybe even inevitable, over time and experience. That’s the wonder and wonderfulness of this trip we – and, by extension, you – are on. To paraphrase the slogan of that annoying credit-card commercial, “What’s in your placeness?”

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