Why do we care what authors look like?

By Dr. Julian North, Senior Lecturer in nineteenth-century English Literature.

We are all familiar today with the use of the author portrait as a form of branding – a situation where novels are sold by the author’s face as much as by the cover or contents. But author portraits also evoke strong feelings in the reading public. Over the last year, for instance, media attention and scholarly debate have been devoted to the authenticity of two portraits said to be of Jane Austen, as well as to the discovery of a daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson – thought to be only the second existing image of the poet (Paula Byrne, ‘Who was Miss Jane Austin?’, Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 2012; ‘A Portrait of the Artist as  a Young Girl’, Guardian, 9 June, 2012; ‘Emily Dickinson Gets a New Look’, Guardian, 5 Sept. 2012).

The regularity with which such stories arise in the press points to our continuing fascination with tracking down the authentic appearance of authors – an apparently frivolous pursuit, but in fact a curiosity that goes to the heart of our understanding of what a literary author is, and reveals much about our expectations of the relationship between authors and their public.

In order to address the question of why we are so fascinated with the faces of those who write, we have to look back to the nineteenth century. This was the period when literature first became industrialised on a grand scale, banishing the possibility that an author might be able to know or even fully imagine their reading public. But it was also the time when readers were first routinely encouraged to form intimate, if imaginary, relationships with authors, and to interpret their works as autobiographical expressions. In fact, the more distant the relationship between readers and writers actually became, in the context of the mass marketing of literature, the more a compensatory fantasy of relationship with the author flourished – and this is where the author portrait came in.

Nineteenth-century Britain saw a proliferation in the public dissemination of author portraits in a variety of media, enabled by the expansion of the publishing industry more generally, and the development of new technologies specifically linked to the mass reproduction of images – for example steel-plate engraving and, from the1840s, the invention of photography. Not only did collections of poetry, biographies and other literary works routinely contain portraits of the author, but readers could collect author portraits in the form of engravings, busts, cartes de visite photographs and even death masks.

Author portraits functioned then, as they do today, as a way of selling books, but they also offered the readers a sense of the author’s authentic presence, and of the possible connection to be made with the person behind the literary work. In so doing they were also an important way of commenting on individual authors and their works. An aspect of this that I have been particularly interested in is the popularity of verbal, eye-witness descriptions of authors. It was often claimed that word portraits gave readers a truer image than a painting or bust because they could tell you what a writer sounded like and how he or she moved. For example, only one, rather stiff visual portrait of the poet Percy Shelley survives (by Amelia Curran), but there are many wonderful eye-witness word portraits that supplement it by telling us how he spoke (in a shrill and discordant voice) and moved (constantly, energetically, bounding around, according to one of his biographers, ‘with the mysterious and whimsical agility of a kangaroo’).

As this suggests, word portraits were also often much less flattering than visual images – and this added to the aura of authentic presence. Thomas Medwin, one of Byron’s biographers, noted that his eyes had the fire of inspiration but ‘were placed too near his nose…and one was rather smaller than the other’, and many of Byron’s biographers noted that he was balding and overweight. Elizabeth Gaskell described Charlotte Bronte, in her biography, as a woman with ‘plain, large and ill-set’ features. In private she wrote that Bronte has ‘a reddish face; large mouth & many teeth missing’. Such descriptions stood in stark contrast to the portraits of Byron (by Richard Westall, for instance) or the beautified image of Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond, that was the frontis piece to Gaskell’s biography.

This raises the question of how far authors had (and have) control over their image. Byron was famously involved in manipulating his public persona – both through his poetry and through his portraits, but even he felt control slipping away as artists, publishers and others appropriated his image for their own purposes. Charlotte Bronte, like many writers since, shied away from publicity and only agreed reluctantly to have her image taken. One of the things I will be talking about at Literary Leicester is the debate over photographs said to be of Bronte, and evidence that, I believe, shows she was asked by a publisher for a photograph – and flatly refused. This hasn’t stopped us wishing for such an image – of course. Just as we live in hope of recovering another  authentic picture of Jane Austen, so, in our desire to see and truly know the author, we continue to hope that an incontrovertibly genuine photograph of Charlotte Bronte will turn up in someone’s attic.

Dr. Julian North, Senior Lecturer in nineteenth-century English Literature will speak on ‘Picturing Romantic and Victorian Authors’ at Literary Leicester, 7 November 2012 (2-3pm, Peter Williams Lecture Theatre, Fielding Johnson South).

Julian is the author of The Domestication of Genius: Biography and the Romantic Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

See also her article on biographical portraits of P. B. Shelley: ‘Shelley Revitalized: Biography and the Reanimated Body’, European Romantic Review 21:6 (December 2010), pp. 751-70.

2 Comments

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 06/11/2012 at 13:29 | Permalink

    I am very interested in the author of The Mysterious Dissappearing Post.

    [Reply]

    vicuol Reply:

    The comment below Chris? I’m very sorry, it got caught up in the spam filter (wrongly!) Apologies – Vic, Admin.

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  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 05/11/2012 at 21:10 | Permalink

    It would seem we are more interested in the appearance of those authors of whom we know there are no pictures than those that may have a picture or two and probably then only if they are women. Do i like Wilkie Collins or Thackary less because I have seen a picture of Boz? The author David Mitchell is not that man on the telly but his picture will serve as the one to go with the name. I don’t need to visualise the writer.
    I suspect that pictures are published with female readers in mind.

    I have never been tempted to search for an author’s picture on the Internet and have only seen those whose publishers have placed them on the dust jacket. Some are most disappointing, like Edna O’Brian, and others quite what you expected. Michael Chabon looks exactly as you would expect from reading The Mysteries of Pittsburg but do I like Jeffrey Eugenides any less because I have not seen his picture? Of course not. I have never seen a picture of Margret Atwood, Isaac Asimov and I saw footage of Ray Bradbury for the first time this week. How many people know what Ian Flemming looks like, one of the most famous authors of the 20th Century, or Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Connan Doyle, or P. G. Wodehouse for that matter. I think these writers have established conclusively that no one really cares what a writer looks like.

    [Reply]

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