‘What Jane Saw’ creator talks time traveling through technology

Jane Austen has been part of the literary canon for centuries. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion, to name a few, are novels that lived long past their production in the 1800s and continue to garner a widespread fan base that still reads and glorifies these novels to this very day.

“Janeites”, as her more devoted fans are called, can be found in many parts of the world, reading, analyzing, and imagining the works of Ms. Austen.

Last Thursday, Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin Janine Barchas, a Janeite herself, gave a talk as part of the CAS Speaker Series on her use of modern technology that allows users to travel back to 1813 and take a step into the life of Jane Austen.
“What Jane Saw” is an online digital gallery that allows viewers to observe a room-by-room deconstruction of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings that Austen visited on May 24, 1813 at 52 Pall Mall in London. Barchas began her talk by providing some background on her fascination with this particular moment in the life of Jane Austen.

Janine Barchas is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, a novel that focuses on the celebrity culture of Ms. Austen. During her research, she came across a letter Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, about the museum exhibitions she visited on May 24, 1813.
The letters describe her quest to search for portrait representations of her Pride and Prejudice characters in Sir Reynolds’ paintings. In the letter, she describes her success at finding a painting that looked like Mrs. Bingley but her inability to hunt down one that resembled Mrs. Darcy.

“This was my smoke and gun.… She’s looking for Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley,” Barchas said, reliving the feeling of excitement she had felt upon finding this tidbit of information. Austen was born into modest beginnings and did not interact with the social elite of her time. Reynolds’ paintings represented these same elite celebrities, and Austen, through examining his works, was able to immerse herself in British celebrity culture.

And so the task to recreate the exhibit began. Barchas, with help from her programming, art, and design students at the University of Texas at Austin, underwent the task of turning her ideas into reality — well, virtual reality.

They underwent the meticulous task of determining the exact layout of the pictures, finding the perfect layer of colors that would help date the images, and figuring out the perfect lighting. The website was created with the use of Google SketchUp.

Barchas talks about other similar digital heritage projects that were also released around the same time as “What Jane Saw.” One of these was the Chicago Art Institute’s celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Jane Austen’s attendance to the Armory Show which incorporated black and white photographs of the walls from that particular show.

“If Jane Austen had done what I wish she had, which was to take out her iPhone and shoot me some photographs, I would’ve had that too,” Barchas said. Barchas created a website that allows us to travel back in time and view the amazing art works that Austen got to experience so many years ago.

Not only did Barchas set out to digitally reconstruct the highly acclaimed paintings of Sir Jonathan Reynolds — something that in itself would be a great achievement — but she wanted to view them specifically through the lens of Jane Austen. Over time, her initial slideshow of ideas blossomed into a fully formed website that has been viewed by more than 150,000 people around the world.

Viewers are able to click on the image of each individual portrait and learn about the history of the paintings and the people represented in them, but also how each picture connects back to Jane Austen.

Some of the people in the paintings include King Lear, Louis Phillipe Joseph, Captain John Hamilton, and Emma Hamilton, who was, according to Barchas, “the Marilyn Monroe of Jane Austen’s time.”

The website has become an overwhelming success, even deemed as a first in the digital humanities. Carnegie Mellon Professor Jamie Smith, who is currently teaching “Pride and Prejudice and Popularity” said, “Barchas’s work is brilliant in that it combines immersive entertainment (like you might experience when watching a Jane Austen film) with detailed historical accuracy and scholarship. Projects like these highlight the value of digital humanities and can provoke new ideas in fields like cultural studies and performance theory.”

What’s next for Janine Barchas? Currently, “What Jane Saw” is in the works of becoming a 3D interactive visual tool for viewers to be able to simulate the experience of embodying Jane Austen as she walks through the museum. Barchas will also be co-curating the “Will and Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library with Carnegie Mellon’s Professor of English Kristina Straub.