There are few images of Jane Austen drawn when she was alive, and because she never sat for a professional portrait, people often wonder what did Jane Austen look like? To answer this question, there are some published descriptions by those who knew her best.
One description of Jane comes from a relative of Anne Lefroy, better known as Madame Lefroy. She was Jane’s closest neighbor, and despite being twenty-six years older than her, Madame Lefroy respected young Jane’s intelligence and encouraged her. However, it was not Madame Lefroy who left a description of her but rather her brother. He was an English bibliographer and genealogist named Sir Egerton Brydges, and years after Jane had grown, Brydges stated:
“When I knew Jane Austen I never suspected that she was an authoress; but my eyes told me that she was fair and handsome, slight and elegant, but with cheeks a little too full.”
Jane’s favorite brother, the tall, witty, and good-looking Henry, who married Eliza de Feuillide, joined with Jane’s older sister, Cassandra, in publishing Persuasion after Jane’s death in December of 1817. Henry, who had recently become an Anglican clergyman, wrote the biographical notice for the book, and included this description of Jane’s physical appearance:
“Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful; her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might with truth be said, that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek.”
Cassandra intended to marry Thomas Fowle, but he died of yellow fever before that could happen. One of Thomas’ brother had a son named Fulwar-William Fowle, who was born in 1791. He was just a boy when Jane was in her twenties, but he remembered her and described her in 1838 saying that she was “– pretty, certainly pretty – bright and a good deal of colour in here face – like a doll – no, that would not give at all the idea for she had so much expression – quite a child, very lively and full of humour – most amiable, most beloved.”
Jane Austen’s family decided in the late 1860s to write a biography of her. This was prompted because interest in Jane was growing, her last sibling died in 1865, and the Austen family worried an outsider might write a biography of her. The task for producing it fell to Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who belonged to the eldest branch of the family. He gathered and compiled recollections, stories, and materials from her family and friends and then published Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 that included his description of her:
“In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health an animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face. If not so regularly handsome as her sister, yet her countenance had a peculiar charm of its own to the eyes of most beholders. At the time of which I am now writing, she never was seen, either morning or evening, without a cap; I believe that she and her sister were generally thought to have taken to the garb of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required; and that, though remarkably neat in their dress as in all their ways, they were scarcely sufficiently regardful of the fashionable, or the becoming.”
Jane began wearing caps by the late 1790s. She stated as much in letter to Cassandra dated 1 December 1798 noting that caps made caring for her hair extremely efficient: “they save me a world of torment as to hair dressing, which at present gives me no trouble beyond washing and brushing, for my long hair is always plaited up out of sight, and my short hair curls well enough to want no papering.” Jane also once wrote of her cap stating:
“My cap is come home, and I like it very much. Fanny has one also; her is white sarsenet and lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning carriage wear, which is what it is intended for, and is in shape exceedingly like our own satin and last of last winter; shaped round the face exactly like it, with pipes and more fulness, and a round crown inserted behind. My cap has a peak in front. Large full bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple, perhaps and another at the left ear.”
Caroline, sister to James, wrote her recollections of Aunt Jane also remembering her affinity for her cap. Caroline’s memories were primarily about Jane in her later years, and James found the essay extremely helpful and relied quite heavily upon it for his Memoir of Jane Austen. Caroline’s remembrances were also delightful, revealing, and clearly described Jane’s sweet charm. Her memories also included the following about her aunt’s physical appearance:
“[H]er’s was the first face I can remember thinking pretty … Her face was rather round than long – she had a bright, but not a pink colour – a clear brown complexion and very good hazel eyes – She was not, I believe, an absolute beauty, but before she left Steventon she was established as a very pretty girl, in the opinion of most of her neighbours … Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally – it was in short curls round her face … She always wore a cap … at least of a morning but I never saw her without one, to the best of my remembrance, either morning or evening.”
Jane’s penchant for wearing caps was also captured in a watercolor and pencil portrait of her from 1810. It was created by her sister Cassandra, an amateur watercolorist. The cap Jane wore in this 1810 image was described as a “small quilled tulle” cap, and, of Cassandra’s drawing of Jane, one writer remarked:
“In this drawing she appears to be under thirty, short round curls shade her forehead, and her expression is peculiarly arch, intelligent and animated. She seems to be amused and wide-awake to everything that is passing around her.”
For James’ Memoir of Jane Austen, a local artist, James Andrews, was hired to redraw Cassandra’s 1810 watercolor for the frontispiece. James and his sisters helped Andrews with the drawing, but members of Jane’s family who remembered her best were somewhat disappointed with the result. They did not necessarily think it resembled Jane, and a one-time neighbor of Jane’s at Chawton, Charlotte Maria Middleton, wrote of the portrait:
“Jane’s likeness is hardly what I remember there is a look, & that is all – I remember her as a tall thin spare person with very high cheek bones great colour – sparkling Eyes not large but joyous & intelligent The face by no means so broad & plump as represented; perhaps it was taken when very young, but the Cap looks womanly.”
Another portrait thought to be of Jane is also a pencil and watercolor done by James Stanier Clarke, who was an admirer of Jane’s talents and someone she described as “courteous.” He met her when he escorted her through the Prince Regent’s residence at Carlton House where she went to see the Prince’s library on Monday, 13 November 1815. Like Cassandra’s portrait of Jane, Clarke’s portrait is also small (6 inches by 4 inches).
How this portrait came to light is an interesting story and involved Clarke producing a book of his drawings that he titled, Sacred To Friendship. It was sold in an estate sale in 1955, and a lifelong bibliophile, Richard James Wheeler, came across it on a shelf at the secondhand bookstore that had acquired it. The book contained one-hundred identified drawings, two sketches of two unnamed women, many autographs, and verses. One of the unidentified women was later determined to be Princess Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick. The second unidentified woman was placed near the section containing autographs of female novelists, suggesting that the unidentified person was a novelist.
“Richard Wheeler made the connection between the second woman depicted in Clarke’s album with Jane Austen only after seeing a photo of Cassandra’s sketch of her sister and its familiar Victorian round-eyed copy that Andrews made for the frontispiece of the Memoir and then reading in A Family Record what Mrs. Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Austen Rice … had written to her cousin, James Edward, after seeing the frontispiece picture of their Aunt Jane in his Memoir: ‘I remember her so well & loved her so much … how well the portrait has been lithographed! I think it very like only the eyes are too large, not for beauty but for likeness’. As Wheeler reports, when he observed ‘the similarities with the face of the lady in Clarke’s Friendship Book,’ his attention was ‘jolted.’”
Another niece of Jane’s was Anna Austen, the daughter of Jane’s oldest brother James. Anna was a lively, vivacious, and outgoing child who was often considered to be naughty. She and Jane bonded over “bad” romantic fiction and over the fact that Anna was interesting in being a writer too. In fact, Anna received many letters from her Aunt Jane about literary matters. As an adolescent, Anna provided the following description of her aunt:
“The figure tall and slight, but not drooping; well balanced, as was proved by her quick firm step. Her complexion of that rare sort which seems the particular property of light brunettes; a mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear and healthy; the fine natural curling hair, neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match, and the rather small, but well-shaped nose.”
One last picture of Jane that must be mentioned is the current image depicted of her on England’s 10-pound note. This image was taken from Andrews’ redraw, and, as previously mentioned, is an image that does not accurately reflect what Jane looked like. The note’s image shows an improved, prettier, and airbrushed Jane Austen than the one Andrews created, and, so, instead of getting closer to what Jane looked like when she was alive, it seems Jane’s image is moving further away from reality. What did Jane Austen really look like? The Jane that most historians claim would appear if accurate, would be a woman with sharper features, and perhaps have a less pleasant or sour look.
-  Atlantic Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Art and Politics v. 11 (Atlantic Monthly, 1863), p. 236.
-  J. Austen and H. T. Austen, Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion v. 1 (London: John Murray, 1818), p. ix–x.
-  V. G. Myer, Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart: A Biography (Arcade Publishing, 1997), p. 7.
-  James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (London: Richard Bentley and Son London, 1871), p. 87.
-  J. Austen, Lady Susan: The Watsons v. 6 (New York: Athenaeum society, 1892), p. 35.
-  London Evening Standard, “Jane Austen’s Letters,” October 29, 1884, p. 3.
-  C. Brooke, C.N.L. Brooke and B. Christopher, Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999), p. 5.
-  C. J. Hamilton, Women Writers (London: Ward, Lock, Bowden and Company, 1892), p. 199.
-  D. L. Faye and W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 282.
-  Joan K. Ray and Richard J. Wheeler, “James Stainer Clarke’s Portrait of Jane Austen,” at jasna.org, p. 113.
-  W. Austen-Leigh and R. A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters: A Family Record (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1914), p. 239–40.