Jane Austen: Hot or not?

British publisher gives "plain" author an extreme makeover.

Published April 2, 2007 2:49PM (EDT)

Memo to Art Dept.: Soften nose, even out eyes, tone arms, lose hat. Hair extensions possible? Also, give her better color and, for God's sake, some boobs.

As it turns out, the latest Photoshop miracle has been wrought not in any magazine or on any cast member of "Grey's Anatomy." For the new cover of a reissued biography, British publisher Wordsworth Editions has seen fit to perform an extreme makeover on the closest-to-definitive portrait of venerable 19th century novelist Jane Austen.

"She was not much of a looker. Very, very plain," Helen Trayler, the publisher's managing director, told the Guardian. "Jane Austen wasn't very good looking. She's the most inspiring, readable author, but to put her on the cover wouldn't be very inspiring at all. It's just a bit off-putting."

Publishers normally use a sketch of Austen drawn by her sister Cassandra. But in fairness to Wordsworth, the artist's proto-Klee crooked-eye style and the subject's hint of a scowl make it not the image Austen would be advised to use for her Match.com profile. Also, the book ("A Memoir of Jane Austen," by James Austen-Leigh, a nephew) is being reissued to coincide with the release of a biopic called "Becoming Jane." What, readers were expecting Anne Hathaway?

"I know you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover. Sadly people do. If you look more attractive, you just stand out more," added Trayler. "Sadly, we do live in a very shallow world and people do judge by appearance."

Sunday's New York Times (where you can also see Austen "before" and "after") tried to place the retouched portrait in a bigger picture. "What if, to put it bluntly, [Austen] became a writer in part because she didn't have the looks to land a husband along the lines of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightley?" wonders Charles McGrath. The suggestion sounds mean and reductive, but it's not entirely inconsistent with Austen's time or, for that matter, her social commentary. (It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good job must be in want of a pretty face.) Just one key fact-check: Austen was in fact engaged to a "big and awkward" man by the big and awkward name of Harris Bigg-Wither. She broke their betrothal after one day, apparently because she did not love him.

All in all, I find this whole thing more "is nothing sacred?" hilarious than I find it offensive, though I'm guessing no photo editor was ever told to plump the lips of Thomas Hardy.

Update: Due to an accidental deletion during the editing process, this post was originally published without the above sentences about Mr. Bigg and Awkward. That section has now been reinstated as originally written.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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