James Andrews, “Jane Austen” (1869), watercolor (© private collection, courtesy of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, Stevenson, Maryland)

Though Jane Austen’s characters are beloved, whether the smart and resilient Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice or the marriage-ready Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility, the author herself is an enigma. The Mysterious Miss Austen opening May 13 at the Winchester Discovery Centre in Hampshire, England, unravels some of the 19th-century author’s biography through art, manuscripts, and personal items such as her silk pelisse coat decorated with oak leaves.

Cassandra Austen, “Jane Austen” (1810) (© National Portrait Gallery)

Last week, the Hampshire Cultural Trust announced that the upcoming exhibition would feature a surprise guest, with the rare display of an 1869 watercolor by James Andrews of Austen.

“What this adds to the show is the family’s recreation of their aunt in a way which they felt was palatable to an audience of the 1870s, and probably even to them, as mid Victorians,” Louise West, former curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum and co-curator of The Mysterious Miss Austen, told Hyperallergic. “This, if you like, is the beginning of ‘Jane Austen Celebrity,’ and this ties in very well with the whole exhibition, which is examining: ‘Who is Jane Austen?’”

Part of a private collection, the work by Andrews will be one of six Austen portraits joined together for the first time. The 1869 oval-shaped likeness is based on the only confirmed portrait of Austen from her lifetime, sketched by her sister Cassandra, which is on loan from the National Portrait Gallery for the show.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who co-curated the exhibition with West, stated in a release that although Austen is “our most intimate writer — the writer we each feel speaks to and for us,” what we know about her life “is built upon ambiguities, contradictions and paradox: even how she looked is something of a mystery.”

For instance, there’s still much debate about the “Rice portrait,” named for its current owners, and if it portrays a bright-eyed, teenaged Austen. Some have speculated she was a political radical, others that she died of arsenic poisoningThe Mysterious Miss Austen is the centerpiece of the Jane Austen 200 programming, a collaboration between Hampshire Cultural Trust with Jane Austen’s House Museum and other institutions, marking the 200th anniversary of her death on July 18, 1817.

Austen is now buried in Winchester Cathedral, and this July 18, a new £10 banknote will be unveiled in that sacred space by the Bank of England. Its depiction of Austen with her curled hair contained in a cap, accompanied by the quote “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” from Pride and Prejudice, will be based on Cassandra’s much-imitated 19th-century portrait.

The Mysterious Miss Austen is on view at the Winchester Discovery Centre (Jewry Street, Winchester, UK) May 13–July 24.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...