What Did Jane Austen Really Look Like? New Wax Sculpture, Created by Forensic Specialists, Shows Us


Last Wednes­day, the Jane Austen Cen­tre in Bath, Eng­land unveiled the wax sculp­ture above, which they say is the clos­est “any­one has come to the real Jane Austen in 200 years.” The fig­ure, The Guardian reports, is the cre­ation of foren­sic artist Melis­sa Dring, a “spe­cial­ist team using foren­sic tech­niques which draw on con­tem­po­rary eye-wit­ness accounts,” and Emmy-win­ning cos­tume design­er Andrea Galer.

Austen often intro­duced her char­ac­ters with broad descriptions—Emma Wood­house is “hand­some, clever, and rich,” Pride and Prej­u­dice’s Mr. Bin­g­ley sim­ply “a sin­gle man in pos­ses­sion of a good for­tune.” But her tal­ent con­sist­ed in under­min­ing such stock descrip­tions, and the soci­etal assump­tions they entail. Instead of types, she gave read­ers com­pli­cat­ed indi­vid­u­als squirm­ing uncom­fort­ably inside the bonds of pro­pri­ety and deco­rum. But what of Austen her­self? Read­ers ini­tial­ly knew noth­ing of the author, as her nov­els were first pub­lished anony­mous­ly.

Since her death in 1817, biog­ra­phers have told and retold her per­son­al his­to­ry, and she has become an almost cult-like fig­ure for fans of her work. Some of the author’s first biog­ra­phers were fam­i­ly mem­bers, includ­ing her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who pub­lished A Mem­oir of Jane Austen in 1872 (above). In it, Austen-Leigh describes his aunt as “very attrac­tive”: “Her fig­ure was rather tall and slen­der, her step light and firm, and her whole appear­ance expres­sive of health and 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 round her face.”

Based part­ly on that descrip­tion and oth­ers from niece Car­o­line, the wax fig­ure, Dring told the BBC, is “pret­ty much like her.” Austen “came from a large… fam­i­ly and they all seemed to share the long nose, the bright spark­ly eyes and curly brown hair. And these char­ac­ter­is­tics come through the gen­er­a­tions.” Dring used Austen’s sis­ter Cassandra’s famous por­trait as a start­ing point, but not­ed that the sketch “does make it look like she’s been suck­ing lemons […] We know from all accounts of her, she was very live­ly, very great fun to be with and a mis­chie­vous and wit­ty per­son.” All descrip­tions with which her devot­ed read­ers would doubt­less agree. See more pho­tos of the Austen wax sculp­ture here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Recipes of Icon­ic Authors: Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl, the Mar­quis de Sade & More

15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satir­i­cal His­to­ry Of Eng­land: Read the Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script Online (1791)

Jane Austen’s Fic­tion Man­u­scripts Online

Find nov­els by Jane Austen in our col­lec­tions: 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free and 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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