When academic and biographer Paula Byrne announced the discovery of what seemed to be a new drawing of Jane Austen, there was a frenzied debate over the picture's authenticity. Arguments are bound to be reignited by the news that the controversial portrait will go on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford as part of the celebrations for World Book Day, before moving to Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton this April. The picture, showing a thin-faced woman gripping an inky quill, accentuates Austen's professionalism.
But what would Austen herself have made of the use of literal portraits as evidence for psychological ones? In Pride and Prejudice, it is while Elizabeth stares at a portrait of Mr Darcy that she readjusts her own mental picture of him. When the eponymous heroine of Emma paints her friend Harriet Smith, she wants an aesthetically pleasing memorial to the pair's friendship, and a tool with which to propel a parson into a proposal – not to capture the real Harriet.
Austen may well have agreed with eminent critic Professor Kathryn Sutherland that whether it being an accurate likeness of Austen matters rather less than the crucial questions of, "who created it, for what purposes and when?"
The portrait will be on display at the Bodleian Library, Oxford (01865 277162) on 1 March