Be thankful Jane was so plain (National Post May 02, 2007)

Christie's auction house is selling an oil painting by British painter Ozias Humphrey (1742-1810). The value of The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen (owner Henry Rice is an Austen descendant) is believed to be as much as US$800,000. If Jane Austen were certifiably its subject, though, the painting's worth would doubtless have soared into the millions rather than a measly six figures.

Skeptics regard the girl's empirewaisted dress and short hair as clues to a provenance 75 years on -- Austen was born in 1775 -- and the portrait's quality as appropriate to a woman of higher breeding and fortune than the humble Miss Austen.

The clincher, though, as alpha cultural critic Clive James observed in a National Public Radio interview: The portrait's subject is "just too pretty to be the author of Pride and Prejudice." Had Austen been that beautiful, James argues, her novels would be different --and certainly not as great. To have developed the detachment and supersonic social radar that characterized Austen's work, she had to be "the person you didn't notice at the ball, but [who] noticed everything. That was her role."

Indeed. I was irritated when the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice featured a dazzlingly beautiful Keira Knightley as protagonist Elizabeth Bennet. The whole point about Austen's alter ego Elizabeth was that, in an age where only beauty and fortune were social capital in the marriage market, a woman of modest looks and no fortune snared society's prize bachelor with intelligence, wit and character.

But 300 years of "enlightenment" later, movie producers quailed at the union of a trophy male to a secondtier beauty, regardless of her inherent worthiness. Rather than honouring Austen's avant-la-lettre feminist vision, they safely endorsed beautiful and smart over smart and merely pretty.

What rankled was that the original Elizabeth's brilliance depends on her sense of irony. Most extraordinarily beautiful women's sense of irony is almost always underdeveloped. Only a woman keenly aware of the odds stacked against her, like Elizabeth, who accepted with good humour the unbridgeable social gulf between her and the diffident Mr. Darcy, would have the what-can-I-lose insouciance to embark on the exquisitely nuanced repartees that become the novel's glory. It is noteworthy that the beautiful older sister in the novel (weirdly, in the movie, she is far less beautiful than Elizabeth) is a correct and sympathetic social companion, but a banal conversationalist, a deliberate and meaningful contrast with the sparkling, but sometimes alarmingly ironic Elizabeth.

The ironic sense grows in proportion to one's exposure to the disparity between reality and the ideal. The mating ideal has it that men and women should be attractive to each other according to their common interests, status and values. But the universal, timeless reality is -- as a rule, there are always exceptions -- that men attract women with their power or promise of power, whether reified in wealth, influence or talent, and women attract men with their sexual charisma. It is a reality that beautiful women might muse about once a week, but which plain women are wont to brood on every hour.

While plain women like Austen are disadvantaged in the mating game, they find compensation in their unfettered access to whatever creativity it is in their gift to exploit. But extraordinary beauty in a woman usually turns her attention away from objective self-expression, condemning her to a life of relentless self-consciousness and an obsession with loving mirrors -- real ones, and those contained in other peoples' eyes.

As in Austen's time, most of us know our place in this unfair but unchangeable aesthetic scheme. But sometimes, awkwardness arises when beauties flout duties: that is to say, when public symbols mistake reverence for their beauty as validation of their inner worth, and think they should be looked to for inspiration as well as being looked at. Think, for instance, of elegant Princess Diana and Margaret Trudeau in her ravishing young womanhood.

As a princess or political consort, Austen wouldn't have driven men ga-ga. But since it is far more terrible to imagine an aesthetic world without Elizabeth Bennet than the tabloids without their princesses and trophy wives, how lucky that my favourite literary character's creator was just plain Jane.

© National Post 2007