We know she was witty and intelligent, good at dancing and needlecraft, and managed to pen some of the English-speaking world's best-loved romances, though she herself never married; but as for evidence of what Jane Austen looked like, little has survived. Just a single portrait, sketched in light watercolours by Austen's sister, Cassandra -- which, according to eyewitness accounts, isn't particularly accurate or flattering.
So the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, the UK, had a challenge on its hands when it decided to create a wax model of the author. It enlisted the aid of Melissa Dring, a forensic artist, to help figure out what Austen actually looked like -- then create a wax likeness. If it sounds like a tough job, that's because it is, taking Dring three years to collect the information she needed, then recreate Austen from the scraps she could find.
All Dring had to go on about the author herself were portrait, and the Austen family's reactions to the portrait -- that Jane was never so round about the face, and that it was, at least according to her niece, Anna, "hideously unlike". So she used portraits of Austen's family members: her parents and siblings. There were several family resemblances between them: a long, narrow nose, bright eyes, and a narrow mouth.
"A nephew described her as a clear brunette with a rich colour, and another observed her doll-like rosy cheeks," Dring wrote, explaining her process. "Incidentally, at this point in Bath, Jane was still mercifully years away from the onset of the Addison's disease which eventually killed her. The skin discolouration which she suffered as one of its symptoms can be completely eliminated from the equation. Her brother Henry wrote that she had true elegance, so I am convinced she held herself well, with slim upright posture, though this was unkindly referred to as poker-like by one acquaintance."
The resultant likeness looks quite different from Cassandra's sketch, with a quirk to the corners of her mouth that imply humour, and a direct, sparkling gaze. Nevertheless, it is, Dring told the BBC, "as close as anyone can possibly get to her".
"We cannot ever know exactly what she looked like, and the likeness has to remain, in part, speculative, but I feel as though there's a distinctly sporting chance that I can't be too far wrong," she said.