By Jane, Actually
Despite being a slave to the Internet and a tireless promoter of those who seek to explain the past (especially my past), I have failed to mention the unveiling of the virtual exhibit What Jane Saw, developed by Professor Janine Barchas at the University of Texas. I can blame the pressures of writing for this oversight, but that is hardly an excuse. After all, I was well aware of the exhibit from its earliest development. I gave what little advice Janine needed and asked for and was in communication throughout the long process of virtually recreating the exhibition of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
I blush to report, however, that in recent months—again I am forced to blame the pressure of preparing a book for publication—I have been negligent. I fear even some entreaties from Janine went unanswered, but she was all politeness and when in due time I responded, she thanked me kindly. I now repay her patience in some small way with this post and I encourage you to visit the exhibit.
24th of May 1813
Oh, I fear I have placed the cart before the horse. You may be unaware that in 1813, I visited the exhibition of Sir Joshua’s great body of work at the British Institution in Pall Mall, although that is poor distinction because 800 people per day did likewise (so Janine informs me). In one of the few surviving letters to my sister Cassandra, I made the joke that I searched Sir Joshua’s portraits for representations of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, which had been published earlier that year1.
I shared with many an appreciation of Sir Joshua’s portraits, although I had seen them mostly as engravings. The exhibit allowed me to see the original works and I was very glad of the opportunity. Janine has gone so far as to suggest that the name of the housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, who shows Elizabeth and the Gardiners through the portrait gallery at Pemberley, was named in honour of Sir Joshua. As I cannot clearly recollect what prompted the choice of the name of a character I created two centuries previous, I will not contradict Janine.
What I do recall
Of course most of my recollections from that time involve sadness over the loss of my cousin, Eliza, whom most of you know as the Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide. She had married my brother, Henry, many years earlier, but had died the previous month2, and so we were still in mourning. Henry accompanied me to the exhibit, at the insistence of all, for he sorely needed something to occupy his thoughts.
We did not leave early for Henry had some business he must attend to (I still smile at the thought of Henry the banker, Henry the soldier and Henry the man of God), but I think that business put him in better mood. Unfortunately I was troubled with what I would have then called a bilious attack; today one would say indigestion, which sounds much less dramatic. I put a brave face on it, however, and we arrived in short order.
It was a little daunting to see the crowd of a Monday morning, especially when feeling unwell, but Henry’s enjoyment made the discomfort well worth it. I might mention that unlike the hushed, reverential tones of museum visitors today, the space was noisy and lively, and patrons felt little reluctance to closely examine the paintings. Janine mentions that a railing had been erected or moved to provide some security, but I can’t say I remember any hindrance.
Fortunately the exercise set my constitution aright and I was able to enjoy myself. I was disappointed that I found no likeness of Mrs Bingley or Mrs Darcy that suited me, but I was also relieved. All the portraits were too grand for women I regarded almost as sisters. I even had the great thought of Cassandra so portrayed and I think I did giggle—or snort (yes, my laugh sometimes resembled a snort). One thinks of fine ladies being painted so grandly; not one’s friends. (Of course Jane and Elizabeth would be grand ladies and would have their portraits painted.)
I do remember seeing a portrait that made me think of Eliza, who I always thought of as deserving such a magnificent representation, although I cannot find it in the virtual exhibit. I remember it catching Henry’s eye momentarily, but he moved on and I breathed a sigh of relief.
I think the day did much to lift the gloom and on the ride home, Henry teazed me abominably about the sales of Pride and Prejudice, predicting such vast sums that would entitle me to my own grand portrait. He even made out that he would proclaim me as the author to those we passed, which threat I negated by the simple expedient of a flick of my finger to the tender portion of his ear. We were quite like children again.
Oh my, I am very thankful to Janine for reminding me of a happy memory that I can reclaim. And so again, I urge you on my behalf to visit this wonderful exhibit as a some small repayment for the joy it has brought me.