Creating the “Dressing Room” Illustration

As a key element of Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, I knew I wanted illustrations to accompany the narrative. This was rather a leap creatively, as currently there exist only two identifiable images of Jane Austen; both of them show her as an adult, and in one her face is entirely shielded by her bonnet. Over the years, various Austen family members, friends, and acquaintances offered descriptions that today combine to create an idea of a tall, thin woman who had hazel eyes, a round face and a rosy complexion, high cheekbones, and curly brown hair.

A new wax work of Jane Austen is unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath Pictured Jess Joyce centre Character dressed as Elinor DashwoodDate 09/07/2014Photographer: Clare Green/Western Daily Press

The hotly debated wax figure in the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England.

It wasn’t much to go on when trying to conjure images of Jane as a little girl. But I wanted to provide a sense of, a feeling for, Austen and her era, and as long as I was completely transparent about this decision and process — and indeed, it’s all explained in Young Jane Austen — I felt very comfortable.

I had the great good fortune to partner with Massimo Mongiardo on the illustrations. Based in New York City, Massi’s done everything from book and product illustration to concept and character design for theater and film productions; it was great having him bring this diverse experience into the process. Too, he was very comfortable with the lack of definitive source material, which was a critical mindset in approaching this project!

In this post I want to focus on one illustration in particular, starting with the concept and showing how we began with the proverbial blank page and ended up with what I see as a wonderful representation of Jane in a very specific time and place.

This illustration is for the chapter called “The Dressing Room,” which occurs toward the end of the narrative section. It’s one of the most important illustrations in the book, as it needed to show how having a ‘room of her one’s own’ in a large and busy household may well have been a key development for a young writer-in-the-making.

Eleven-year-old Jane and her older sister Cassandra, fourteen, were given the use of the room next to theirs, which they called the “Dressing Room.” Biographers believe that Jane’s first literary efforts were written in the Dressing Room: the hilarious and astonishingly sophisticated work that’s now known as her Juvenilia.

Here is Massi’s initial sketch:

Sketch for "The Dressing Room" illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer"

He noted in his email:

Cassy and Jane playing dress-up, maybe with flowers they’ve made of paper, books lying about, a mirror on the wall, pillows, a cozy, creative environment.

My initial reaction was really positive, but something tugged at me. And a few days later I emailed him back:

As much as I like your composition, I feel like we need instead to see Jane, alone, almost like she’s gathering herself for what comes next — the transformation into A CREATOR. The solitude of the artist-to-be, etc. So that the illustration aligns with this text from the chapter: “Alone, but not lonely, for here you could think. Feel. Read. Figure things out. Dream.” Could we rethink this one? 

Here’s Massi’s next sketch:

Second sketch for "The Dressing Room" by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer"

We agreed that we were heading in the right direction. Here’s what he sent next:

Third sketch for "The Dressing Room" illustration by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer"

And his comment:

For this one I studied up on what Jane’s portraits look like. This is the first chapter where her face is blatantly shown . . . as she’s approaching an age where she might to start look like her adult self. Looking at it again I need to thin her eyebrows a bit to make her look less boyish. I wanted her expression to be one of foresight and deep thought. She’s not happy but she’s not upset. She’s pondering . . . in the only place she can, the dressing room.

It was a huge shift from that initial sketch. We were getting so close to the feeling of this chapter!

I wrote back:

Love this!

One small concern: I showed the image to my husband who said, “Why is she wearing headphones?” I guess he doesn’t know about the hairband thing . . . LOL. But you’ll keep an eye on that as you proceed to final? 

And here is Massi’s corrected image:

Final illustration for "The Dressing Room" by Massimo Mongiardo in Lisa Pliscou's "Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer"

Notice the little hint of feminine eyelashes, as well as the subtle upward quirk of her lips so that she doesn’t look lonely or unhappy but rather, dreamy and determined instead.

A beautiful portrait of the artist, emerging.

This excerpted post appears with the kind permission of More Agreeably Engaged, where it was originally published.