Posted by: rebeccakilroy | October 28, 2021

Review: “Sisters and the Arts” Plenary Lecture by Devoney Looser

On October 16th I had the chance to attend the plenary lecture for the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting. The lecture, entitled “Sisters and the Arts” and delivered by Devoney Looser, looked at the tradition of eighteenth and nineteenth century families of artists and writers who often worked together or inspired each other. While Jane Austen was the only novelist in her family, her older sister Cassandra was an accomplished, and often overlooked, artist. 

Only one confirmed and undisputed image of Jane Austen’s face survives today. Unlike almost every other member of her immediate family, she never had a professional portrait or silhouette done. She achieved some success in her lifetime but it wasn’t until after her death that acclaim for her books rose to the point where readers wanted to see and know the author. Since then, the portrait of her face has been the subject of constant debate, study and reworking. I found all of this fascinating in regards to the cult of the celebrity author and the desire for image that so irritated Dickens later in the century. However, Looser glossed over the history of the image, which she feels has already been widely discussed, in favor of looking at the artist.

Only confirmed image of Jane Austen

Cassandra created this now-famous image of Jane in 1810 using pencil and watercolor. Historically, this image has faced criticism from both literary and artistic scholars. Most agree that it isn’t “good” in an artistic sense and some say it fails to accurately capture anything about the author. After all, Cassandra Austen wasn’t a professional artist and while she might have received lessons from a private tutor, she never enrolled in a formal art school. Portraiture was one of many drawing room arts for upper and middle class women at the time. This work has rarely been counted as art as all and relegated to being amateurish or the product of boredom.

However, Looser rightly pointed out that this view of women’s work as “unartistic” reinforces the same male-elitist biases that have been in place since the picture’s creation, and long before. The overall theme of the conference was “Jane Austen and the Arts” and other lectures celebrated such traditionally femenine and therefore “unartistic” arts as cooking and embroidery. In keeping with this theme, Looser seeks to establish Cassandra as an artist in her own right and an artistic collaborator with her sister. In fact, the two did collaborate on a History of England that Jane wrote in her teens and which Cassandra illustrated. Throughout their lives, the sisters were partners in domestic labor and looked to each other for sources of inspiration. The prevalence of sisters and sisterhood in Austen’s novels attests to this. 

This lecture made me reconsider the earlier part of our class where we talked about early, pre-photographic portraiture. Of course the oiling paintings of the aristocracy are valuable visual records. However, Looser pointed out that most middle class families in the emerging nineteenth century relied on women to serve as visual historians. Whatever the scholarly opinion of Cassandra’s art, literary historians and Austen readers are indebted to her for creating our lasting understanding of Jane’s image.

From Cassandra as an artist, Looser shifted to other Austen siblings. Two of Janes’ brothers, Charles and Frank, served in the navy and both learned to sketch during that time, often illustrating the letters they sent home. This is where visual arts intersects with other scholarship that Looser has been doing recently into the Austen family’s relation to transatlantic slavery. While Looser admitted this diverged slightly from the “Sisters and the Arts” promised by the title, it was nonetheless important and informed scholarship regarding Austen. 

Jane’s family was more involved in transatlantic slavery than the cheerful, all-white casts of BBC adaptations would have you believe. Her father invested heavily in a Caribbean plantation, the proceeds of which may well have funded Jane’s childhood education, even the paper and desk she later wrote on. In the navy, her brother Charles was in charge of an anti-slavery mission to capture Spanish slave ships entering the Carribean. However, Looser suggested that it remains unclear how personally he took the anti-slavery message. He notably let a Spanish captain escape unpunished when the captain asked to visit his sick wife. Charles placed total faith in a “white gentleman’s agreement” without reconsidering the repercussions for justice.

I was pleased to finally hear a lecturer address the legacy of slavery in Austen’s novels directly, something that was largely lacking from other lectures at the conference. In consuming nineteenth century art or literature, no matter how distanced it may at first seem from topics of imperialism and empire, those practices shaped every aspect of British life. The fact that this came at the end of a lecture devoted to portraiture practices within England, rather than receiving its own lecture, highlights the immense amount of work needed to continue raising awareness. Still, I think Looser effectively united different cultural sources related to Austen while not losing sight of their cultural context. 

In the concluding question and answer section, an audience member pointed out that the JASNA monthly publication had done a special issue on Austen and race last year. Looser acknowledged the value of this but, like Chatterjee, Christoff and Wong, Looser said that real progress would be when every issue contained material that explored the legacy of imperialism and transatlantic slavery in nineteenth century literature.

Looser, Devoney. “Sisters and the Arts”. Plenary Lecture, JASNA Annual General Meeting, October 16, 2021. Chicago


Responses

  1. I think it is really important to acknowledge the roots of racism within Austen’s life and career, and I think you make a great parallel between the work of Chatterjee, Christoff and Wong with what Looser says in response to the panel question. On a different note, my one of my Spanish classes today discussed what is and isn’t art. My question to you: do you think there is anything to be gained in the debate about whether or not Cassandra’s portrait of art is good?


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