This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 2 February 2021.
About year ago, on a visit to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, I came across a delightful painting that immediately set my imagination flying.
The 1887 painting, titled Two Strings to Her Bow, shows a cheerful young woman walking with her arms around two supposed suitors, neither of whom seem too pleased with the situation.
With its coquettish female central figure in an Empire-line muslin dress and the men in breeches, the scene was a lovely depiction of Regency times. More specifically, to me the scene looked straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
A Victorian Throwback
Although Two Strings to Her Bow was painted 70 years after her death, the timing was no coincidence. The artist, John Pettie (1839-1893), was born in Edinburgh and had a successful career in England, which in Victorian times meant keeping an eye on what the market wanted.
The fact is that, towards the end of the 19th century, Austen underwent a bit of a revival. It all kicked off with the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. Written by Austen’s nephew’s James Edward Austen-Leigh’s, the biography presented her as a respectable writer whose work was perfect for Victorian sensibilities.
(You may remember that, as part of the publicity campaign around A Memoir of Jane Austen, Austen-Leigh also commissioned a portrait of his aunt with a much-softened image, which is the same one that now appears in the 10 pound note today).
The Rise of “Austenolatry”
The reissue of Austen’s novels in the following years drove a renewed interest in Austen. More than the lavishly illustrated collectors’ sets, however, it was the cheap, “popular” editions of the books that made the writer a household name.
Austen became so popular in the 1880s that some talk about a veritable Austen-mania, or “Austenolatry”. (The backlash in certain circles was to belittle the literary merit of Austen’s novels, and writers like Henry James, Mark Twain and Charlotte Brontë openly criticised her work.)
Given the growing interest in Austen, the subject of Pettie’s painting makes perfect sense. Intriguingly, it is part of a series featuring the same characters in different configurations. I wonder where the rest of the paintings have ended up and the story they tell.
The Girl in the Painting
But back to Two Strings in Her Bow. Who might the young lady be? She certainly looks like the cat who got the cream, confident of her allure and boosted by the clear rivalry of the two men hankering for her affections. Ask for the gentlemen, they couldn’t be more different…
If you ask me, she is no other than Miss Lydia Bennet in one of her flirting sprees, but I am happy to be convinced otherwise!
What do you think? What Austen character(s) does the painting bring to your mind? And who would be your preferred suitor if you were the woman in the painting?
It does look like Lydia, but surely she would insist her suitors be officers in uniform.