George Justice, Editor

An Exquisite Possession

Effusions of Fancy

By Jane Odiwe.
PaintBox Publishing, 2003. 30 pages.
Color illustrations. £9.99 (available online from

Reviewed by Diana Birchall.

“What an exquisite possession a good picture of her would be! I would give any money for it.”

We do not all have the same opinions of works of art, as can be seen by the reactions of Emma’s friends to the picture she painted of Harriet. Mr. Elton sighed out his compliments and found a likeness almost before it was possible, while Mr. Knightley only commented, “You have made her too tall, Emma.” Similarly, opinions may be divided on the subject of Jane Odiwe’s picture book. Some members of my reading group, polled, thought it exquisite, while others suspected it of being sentimental. After poring over the work, I plump down on the side of the “exquisites.”

With lapidary minuteness, Odiwe has taken scenes from Jane Austen’s life and fashioned them into a set of pictures. The care and love she has lavished on these jewel-like watercolors is highly evident and succeeds in shedding new light on their subjects. The book is of rather Elizabeth Bennet-like size, that is, lightly built, like a children’s book;  the simplicity and naïveté about the pictures give them freshness and charm. The palette of colors is especially pleasing: a painting of Jane dancing with Tom Lefroy at an Ashe ball has a ravishingly starry night sky of lapis lazuli blue. And a Christmas scene at Steventon, with Jane and Cassandra walking in the snow in vivid green and red costumes, creates the same vivid vibration of color. Several of these scenes have been made into attractive cards, and are available in that form. A lovely drawing of Steventon Rectory in winter can hardly be surpassed for suitability as a Christmas card.

Effusions of Fancy is not solely a picture show, but a story that Odiwe has created with the engaging combination of judgment and simplicity she shows in her art. The text consists of letters written as if from Cassandra, providing glimpses of the sisters’ lives. Odiwe does not make the mistake of attempting too much; the text is subordinate to the illustrations, yet it serves to connect and animate them—in short, text and pictures work together harmoniously. Lewis Carroll’s Alice said, “What use is a book without pictures or conversations?” and this book is rich in both.

In her introduction, Odiwe tells us that she felt a need to picture scenes from Jane’s life for herself and that her sketches were inspired by contemporary paintings and silhouettes. In one family scene, the Austen family, distinctly recognizable, is grouped around a table. There is an 18th-Century stiffness to the figures—no slouching or lounging as there might be today—yet the picture conveys the Austen family’s characteristic qualities of alertness and good humor. Another charming picture shows the family grouped around Mrs. Austen’s bed when Jane is a baby; Mr. Austen is seated wearing a powdered wig and a pleased expression. We can feel the artist’s enjoyment in imagining the scene.

“One thing I do not quite like,” as Mr. Woodhouse said about the image of Harriet sitting out of doors under a tree, is the “proportions, fore-shortening” (as Mr. Elton cried) of the pictures of Jane and Cassandra as children. These echo the Rice portrait to some extent, and tend to give the girls a slightly midgety look. In another vein, Odiwe has bravely attempted to come as close as she can to an image of what Jane “really” looked like. Using the two famous watercolors by Cassandra as inspiration, she clarifies the faint and unsatisfying portrait in a way that is both pretty and plausible without being a forensic reconstruction. And Odiwe also wittily shows us the picture of Jane sitting with her back to us—but with the face turned in our direction.
Other gems include Mr. Collins doing a full scrape before a thoroughly nasty-looking Lady Catherine and several full-scale ballroom scenes. These astutely combine old-fashioned images with a modern viewpoint, imbuing the scenes with a fresh “you are there” reality. In a Pump Room picture, Jane, very fashionably dressed, situated at the edge of the pageant, turns to us and draws us into the scene. And another picture, showing Jane in Bath, gives us a strong sense of what it must have been like to walk on the streets of that city in 1799. She is not posed but walking hurriedly, as on an errand, and it brings to mind scenes in Persuasion as well as in her own life.

This is a very pretty book, but it is more; it provides food for thought as the author/artist shares her creative reconstructive vision of how Jane Austen, her family, and her world may have appeared. It’s worth more than the merely casual glance many a picture book is accorded; a study of the miniaturist-like, enameled details is rewarding and refreshing.

Diana Birchall is a story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios. She is the author of the Jane Austen sequels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, In Defense of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Elton in America, as well as Onoto Watanna, a biography of her grandmother, the first Asian American novelist (University of Illinois Press, 2001).

JASNA News v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 19

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