May 15, 2012


I love to watch a good scholarly argument.

When I was in college, the Classics department bulletin board was once adorned with one of the all-time classics, the Times (London) debate about Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” This familiar phrase, when you think about it, makes no sense.

In what light do the waters of the Aegean remind you of wine? And what kind of wine? You would hardly call your pinot grigio “dark,” and your nice Tuscan red is really not very like the Mediterranean’s crystalline turquoise in sunlight, nor much like it’s dark blue gray beneath looming storm clouds. Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Was the Med once red? Were there algae blooms in antiquity? Or was Greek wine blue? What are we missing?

People wrote letters, they wrote columns they wrote rebuttals. It went on for ages.

There’s another wonderful fracas right now in the TLS. Paula Byrne kicked it off with a note about a (terrible) pencil drawing she owns which, just possibly, is a portrait of Jane Austen. The case for this requires very close attention to all sorts of details. Who could have made the drawing? Why? Are the clothes right?

Then Roy Davids, who wrote the auction catalog, weighed in to defend that catalog’s skepticism. Then Richard Jenkyns, a professor, weighed in with additional reasons for doubt:

Dr Byrne treats the picture like a photograph – as though Jane Austen had visited an unattested friend who chanced to live due west of the Abbey and someone snapped her there. But of course portraits were not like that; the backgrounds signify. The sitter is a Londoner: she is at home with her cat beside her. No one would take a likeness of a person with somebody else’s cat. She may have been wife, daughter or sister of a Rector of St Margaret’s or a Dean or Canon of Westminster, or perhaps a literary lady who wrote about Westminster.

Then Dierdre Le Faye wrote a still longer and more detail refutation. If this is Jane, where are her books? Where is the topaz necklace Jane’s brother gave her? Where did all the rest of the jewelry come from?

The TLS articles are regrettably locked behind a paywall, but J. F. Wakefield, who blogs for the Jane Austen’s House Museum, has a good summary.