RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Christie's auction house today will put what is believed to be the only oil painting of Jane Austen up for sale. It's being sold by one of the writer's descendants, Henry Rice. And, as it is known, the Rice portrait of Jane Austen could sell for as much as $800,000 - that is, if bidders believe that the girl in the painting really is a teenage Jane Austen.
Some skeptics have argued that the short-haired, empire-waist dress in the portrait weren't stylish until Jane Austen was much older, and that the young girl in the painting is just too pretty to be the author of "Pride and Prejudice."
To talk through this literary and artistic mystery, we've called on a true Renaissance man, author, poet and critic, Clive James. We talk to him at his home in London. Good morning.
Mr. CLIVE JAMES (Author; Critic): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Is it important that we know what Jane Austen looked like?
Mr. JAMES: Well, that's one question. The other one is, is this portrait her. And the second answer is almost certainly not. If we knew it was Jane Austen, it will be worth $800 million at least. But it's notoriously not her. And there are several reasons for that. I'm told there are art-history reasons, but the main reason is that the author of Jane Austen's novels couldn't possibly look like this or they would be very different novels.
MONTAGNE: Well, wait, wait, wait. Let's back up, back up, back up. In other words, you're in the school of she was too pretty to be Jane Austen.
Mr. JAMES: Well, not just me. I mean, the world's leading scholar on Jane Austen was right here in my apartment last night being interviewed by me. And I asked her, and she said, no, no. Of course it can't be Jane Austen because Jane Austen was not outstandingly beautiful or she'd be remembered as that. And it's definitely not in the character of the books to be about a beautiful woman. They are about a woman who was not beautiful, yet who has other virtues. Jane Austen was the person you didn't notice at the ball but she noticed everything. That was her role. If she'd been a great beauty, we would have heard about it; we would have been looking for a picture of a beautiful girl.
Now that we got a picture of a beautiful girl, to say it's Jane Austen is stretching the point and just trying to hike the price, which will undoubtedly happen. The price will be artificially high because it might be Jane Austen.
MONTAGNE: Okay. But to be fair to Henry Rice, who is putting it up for sale and who is a direct - direct as you can be without having children of her own - direct descendant, he does claim that people who'd known her in life swore by this portrait.
Mr. JAMES: Well, yes. Yes, I'm sure, and then there is a process of romanticization that sets in almost immediately. But I should say, the difference in period detail would be enough to settle it, the difference in styles and so on. And so the unlikelihood of someone in her position having a portrait of this quality painting - it's a pretty high-quality picture. And of course, the higher the quality, the less likely it is that it will be of humble Jane.
MONTAGNE: Well, is the theory that, in her day, if she was pretty enough, she would have been married and in some sense the books just wouldn't have happened?
Mr. JAMES: They would have had a different subject. If Jane Austen knew what it was like to actually be the pretty girl who was in demand for her looks, she would have been writing from a different viewpoint. Her viewpoint is overwhelmingly from the moral viewpoint of someone who understands the folly of this marriage market, which actually operates on the hard currency of money and physical looks.
And she has neither, and she couldn't possibly have this understanding if she was a beauty, so it just doesn't add up. Romantically, of course, it adds up. We would love it to be Jane Austen. It would be great. It would be marvelous if Charles Dickens had looked like Denzel Washington, but it's just not so.
MONTAGNE: Well, there you go. We'd love it. What do you think she would have thought of our approach in this day and age to looks? Would she have recognized it?
Mr. JAMES: She would have been fascinated by this day and age because looks were never more at a premium, the whole idea is simply out of control. And she would have been a great satirical student of it. I think she probably would have written much more like, say, Nora Ephron today. She would have been more satirical.
MONTAGNE: So will you be enjoying watching this…
Mr. JAMES: Oh, sure. I will take some notice of it, but not a lot because quite a lot of that goes on here. And I think the sensible consensus is that it isn't her, but it's a nice picture. I'd like to have it. (Unintelligible) to say I think it's probably a picture of Jane Austen, but I would expect fairly rapidly to pass on to another subject.
MONTAGNE: Clive James, thanks very much.
Mr. JAMES: My pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Clive James is the author of "Cultural Amnesia."