A Painting Inspired by a Jane Austen Novel? by Eliza Shearer

A Painting Inspired by a Jane Austen Novel? by Eliza Shearer

About year ago, on a visit to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, I came across a delightful painting that immediately set my imagination flying. 

The 1887 painting, titled Two Strings to Her Bow, shows a cheerful young woman walking with her arms around two supposed suitors, neither of whom seem too pleased with the situation. 

With its coquettish female central figure in an Empire-line muslin dress and the men in breeches, the scene was a lovely depiction of Regency times. More specifically, to me the scene looked straight out of a Jane Austen novel.  

Two Strings to Her Bow, John Pettie (1887)

A Victorian Throwback

Although Two Strings to Her Bow was painted 70 years after her death, the timing was no coincidence. The artist, John Pettie (1839-1893), was born in Edinburgh and had a successful career in England, which in Victorian times meant keeping an eye on what the market wanted.

The fact is that, towards the end of the 19th century, Austen underwent a bit of a revival. It all kicked off with the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. Written by Austen’s nephew’s James Edward Austen-Leigh’s, the biography presented her as a respectable writer whose work was perfect for Victorian sensibilities. 

(You may remember that, as part of the publicity campaign around A Memoir of Jane Austen, Austen-Leigh also commissioned a portrait of his aunt with a much-softened image, which is the same one that now appears in the 10 pound note today).

The Rise of “Austenolatry”

The reissue of Austen’s novels in the following years drove a renewed interest in Austen. More than the lavishly illustrated collectors’ sets, however, it was the cheap, “popular” editions of the books that made the writer a household name. 

Austen became so popular in the 1880s that some talk about a veritable Austen-mania, or “Austenolatry”. (The backlash in certain circles was to belittle the literary merit of Austen’s novels, and writers like Henry James, Mark Twain and Charlotte Brontë openly criticised her work.)

Given the growing interest in Austen, the subject of Pettie’s painting makes perfect sense. Intriguingly, it is part of a series featuring the same characters in different configurations. I wonder where the rest of the paintings have ended up and the story they tell.

The Girl in the Painting

But back to Two Strings in Her Bow. Who might the young lady be? She certainly looks like the cat who got the cream, confident of her allure and boosted by the clear rivalry of the two men hankering for her affections. Ask for the gentlemen, they couldn’t be more different…

If you ask me, she is no other than Miss Lydia Bennet in one of her flirting sprees, but I am happy to be convinced otherwise! 

What do you think? What Austen character(s) does the painting bring to your mind? And who would be your preferred suitor if you were the woman in the painting?

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Patricia Finnegan
Patricia Finnegan
February 12, 2021 12:05 AM

I do not know why but i see this as caroline bingley walking with her brother and mr darcy. I also can see this from sense and sensibiliy as a young mrs. Palmer before she got married. (maybe the one gentleman could be mr palmer?)

February 3, 2021 7:37 PM

Never saw the painting before but definitely brought to mind P&P when I saw it although I thought of Elizabeth initially can definitely see how Lydia may be more apt.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
February 2, 2021 9:15 PM

She does bring to mind Lydia! I’m not sure which man I would choose, one looks young and the other looks a bit more mature. I don’t know but it must be nice to have two men vieing for your affections!lol

February 2, 2021 6:33 PM

Fabulous post! Thank you for sharing.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
February 2, 2021 3:13 PM

She’s too brash to be anyone other than Lydia Bennet even though there is no red coat for her to admire. She appears too young to be Mary Crawford. Not even Marianne Dashwood would act that bad… or would she? Willoughby and Colonel Brandon would never be in each other’s company without scowling at each other. Still too young to be Isabella Thorpe, although she would relish the power between the two gentlemen. I am beginning to see a pattern here with an Austen female character positioned between two beau. Lucy Steele or her sister Anne, perhaps? It could be one of the Musgrove girls. However, it is the expression on her face that makes me choose Lydia. Not even Kitty could pull that off. LOL! What fun. Thanks for sharing this with us. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

Riana Everly
February 2, 2021 12:08 PM

I’ve always loved that painting. I love the smirk on her face.
Who can it be? I think a bit of Mary Crawford, always happy to have a gentleman following her about, and likely to have another in the wings, just in case the first chap doesn’t work out.

Walter Krause
Walter Krause
February 2, 2021 11:57 AM

The girl in the painting certainly is of a mind similar to Lydia, but we all know too well that the youngest Bennet was fixed on officers and red coats or such like. Therefore, it is hardly imaginable that Mr.Pettie was inspired by P&P. The Austenish Lydia would have been offended being expected to waste her time with civilians [SMIRK]. Coquettish sujets of that kind were very popular in painting and illustration in the last quarter of the 19th century, not only in Britain, yet also on the continent. Rarely they were connected to literature.

nikki chicotel
February 2, 2021 11:27 AM

Hmmmm – I think if it was Lydia, one of the two should be a Meryton soldier…

Mirta Ines Trupp
February 2, 2021 9:00 AM

Lovely! I thought of Lydia at first, but then my mind went to Isabella Thorpe!

February 2, 2021 8:30 AM

This could be Fanny Price surrounded by Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford, but more likely Maria, Henry, and Rushworth.

Elaine Jeremiah
February 2, 2021 7:05 AM

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing Eliza. I too thought of Lydia Bennet. As to which gentleman I’d prefer, I think reluctant-looking one on the right hand side of the painting seems intriguing – and good looking too! It’s a lovely painting and so interesting to consider its origins and how we can relate it to Jane Austen’s writing. Great post!

Gianna Thomas
February 2, 2021 5:05 AM

Lydia is who I thought of as well, Eliza. And I love the name of the painting. What a play on words! This is the first time I’ve heard the title, and it is so fitting. Thank you for sharing.

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