Paratext: Portraits

Images that are published alongside text are classified as paratextual material. Visual elements often inform, critique, or respond to textual elements in a dynamic manner. While “The History of England” has always interested academics because of it exemplifies Austen’s keen wit and sarcasm, recent scholarship has taken a decidedly different twist in examining the portraits drawn Cassandra Austen to accompany Jane’s writing. Scholars Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander argue that these sketches are not mere representations of past British monarchs but are rather astute, biographical portraits of members of the Austen family.

Using methodology from the fields of odontology and geomatics, images of the Austen family were overlaid on the portraits to determine whether a substantive correlation existed. They discovered that of the 13 portraits in “The History of England” at least 7 strongly resemble family members or friends of the Austens. Due to the obvious similarity in names, Upfal and Alexander argue that James I, Edward VI, and Henry V are likely representations of eldest Austen boys. Most notably, the nasty Queen Elizabeth is thought to be Mrs. Austen (Jane and Cassandra’s mother) and the benevolent Queen Mary is arguably Jane herself.

Upfal and Alexander assert that this discovery not only evidences Cassandra’s amplification of Jane’s parody but it also reveals new biographical information on the Austen family dynamic: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The confrontational placement of the portraits of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (these two sketches exists parallel to one another in the manuscript with one occupying a recto and the other a verso across the bond notebook), in addition to their binary and dramatic entries in the history, forces critical readers to question the validity of the Austen family history in favour of a more subversive reading. As Upfal and Alexander point out, common biographies of Austen cite her childhood as quintessential and the family dynamic as cheerful; but this new study engages evidence for the opposite.

“The History of England” exists in a “time warp”: written over two hundred years ago yet still revealing unchartered, scholarly territory. This new, possibly darker, understanding of the Austen family strongly calls for deeper and more varied investigation in hopes of uncovering Jane’s true biography.

To view the overlaid images or to read more of the article online: Upfal, Annette, and Christine Alexander. “Are We Ready for New Directions? Jane Austen’s The History of England & Cassandra’s Portraits.” Persuasions 30.2 (2010)

*To view colour images of all the portraits, browse the manuscript by clicking here