Artist: Ralph Earl
Commentary by Jane Hinckley
Part-time instructor in the Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature
In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen explains Mary Crawford’s allure for Edmund Bertram:
“A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.”
Such a description could apply to most portraits of young women in England during the eighteenth century, which is why Ralph Earl’s portrait of Henriette Luard is so unusual. Instead of being painted amidst the shrubbery and trees of an English landscape garden (note the Romney painting), Henriette is surrounded by books in what is most likely her father’s library. Earl painted this remarkable portrait in London during his self-imposed exile from America during the War of Independence. Henriette, descended from wealthy Huguenot ancestry, is about twenty-seven years old in this portrait (only two years younger than Elizabeth Elliot, who laments “her approach to the years of danger” regarding matrimonial chances). Earl’s painting celebrates Henriette’s pursuit of knowledge without compromising her femininity.
Because very few women at this time received formal schooling, a father’s library was the primary place where motivated young ladies like Henriette could become educated. The legible titles and names on the books’ spines in this library indicate they are appropriate reading material for women. On the top shelf, a volume labeled “Blair” refers either to Hugh Blair, a Scottish minister who published five volumes of his sermons, or to the poet Robert Blair, whose blank verse poem, The Grave (1743) helped inspire the “graveyard school” of poetry. Two shelves down you can see three volumes of “Pope”, which most certainly would be the poetry of Alexander Pope, the pre-eminent Augustan poet and translator of the works of Homer. Next to Pope on the left are two spines labeled Thompson, which could be a misspelling of the poet James Thomson, whose work is a favorite of Austen’s Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. “Poetry,” according to Hester Chapone, who wrote extensively on female education during the late eighteenth century, “adds a thousand charms to those sentiments of religion, virtue, generosity, and delicate tenderness, by which the human soul is exalted and refined.” In addition to appreciating poetry, women were encouraged to read history. The second shelf contains “Wraxall’s History” and the diagonally-placed volume to the right of Pope is entitled “Roman History”. The examples of virtue in Roman men and women, especially during the Roman Republic, were popular models for civic and personal emulation. From these shelves, Henriette has chosen a two volume work to read, since a book lies nearby on the table next to her. We, the viewers, have entered this center of learning and interrupted her reading – she keeps her place in her book with a finger; our presence is welcomed or at least benevolently tolerated by Henriette, who has turned her upper torso towards us and calmly regards us. Yet Henriette does not invite us to converse with her about what she is reading, since the binding of the book in her hand is facing towards her, and Earl has not painted a legible title on the other volume’s spine. Either Henriette wants to keep her literary choices private or she knows that proper female conduct requires her to do so.
In a popular contemporary conduct book, A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, John Gregory advises, “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret.” Even the well-educated Lady Mary Wortley Montagu counseled her daughter to teach her young namesake “to conceal whatever Learning [sic] she attains, with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness.” We will never know what Henriette has been reading, and thus the knowledge she has gained from it is her secret. Yet Henriette, by sitting for a portrait that commemorates her learning in a lasting and very tangible way, also subtly contests this notion that a young woman should hide her knowledge. A unifying visual shape, the rhombus, harmonizes Henriette’s female form with her learned setting. Henriette’s arms create the central diamond shape, which is echoed in the green drapery in the painting’s upper left corner and then diagonally above her left shoulder; a partial rhombus is created by the two diagonally-leaning books in the book shelf. Earl shows that Henriette’s presence is not incongruous in this masculine space. Henriette’s learning also has not “unsexed” her, which was a common charge leveled against women who ventured too far from acceptable feminine pursuits, because she is attired in the current fashion: she wears a white silk taffeta dress, in the style of the robe à l’anglaise – voluminous skirt (notice how it bunches around the chair’s arm) and tight-fitting bodice and sleeves – and she has tied a tasseled blue silk sash around her waist with a side bow. The lace edging her sleeves, the gauzy fichu arranged around her shoulders and secured over her breast with a simple pin, and the patterned muslin headdress add softness to her dress. Henriette’s coiffure involves the time-intensive frizzing of hair to frame her face and “sausage” curls tumbling down her neck and shoulders. Gregory observes that for women, “The love of dress is natural to you, and therefore it is proper and reasonable”; therefore “good taste will direct you to dress in such a way as [to . . . ]set off your beauties, if you have any, to the greatest advantage.” Henriette, unlike the awkwardly bookish Mary Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is elegant and appropriately willing to set aside her educational pursuits for our visit.
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Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990) 58.
Austen, Persuasion (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990) 13.
Hester Chapone, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, addressed to a
Young Lady, 1773, Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of femininity, ed. Vivien Jones (New York: Routledge, 1997) 106.
John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters, 1774, Jones 46
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, ed. Isobel Grundy (New York: Penguin, 1997) 380.