Jane Austen was a writer who knew the importance of having money - one of her characters declares that “an annuity is a very serious business”, and all her plots revolve round the need to have means enough to support oneself and quite possibly dependent and/or feckless siblings.
So it feels apt, if unsurprising, that she is to become the face of the £10 note in 2017.
The decision is being made much of, but she is not the first woman to feature, check your fivers now and you’ll find Elizabeth Fry and indeed every piece of Sterling currency features the Queen. It’s not exactly true to say women are not represented, so why the kerfuffle?
Some of it is astute promotion of feminist and equality causes: Fry is to be replaced by Winston Churchill, which - until the Austen decision was made - would have left no women on Bank of England notes (with the exception of Elizabeth II, that is). This was grounds enough for a campaign to highlight the under-representation of women in public life.
Osborne’s humorous note
It’s a deft move and Caroline Criado-Perez is to be congratulated on a successful campaign, but George Osborne’s response indicates another reaction which is likely to be fairly widespread. His rather ponderous quip that the decision shows “sense and sensibility” not only slightly misunderstands the word (he needed the title of the novel to be Sense and Sensitivity for his comment to really work) but also sets the tone for the inevitable series of puns and clever remarks that will ensue.
Can we claim that women are finally being valued more by having their monetary representative thus promoted from five to ten pounds? Austen replaces Darwin, which might be read as a shift from fact to fiction, from science to romance, or simply replacing a scientist of whom most people have heard, but few read, with an author who is also more widely known about than read.
She also just happens to be the woman writer most likely to feature on any list of great authors; she may not be an honorary male, but she’s certainly the obvious female figure and, some would say, allowed in because she is understated, decorous, humorous, never strident or controversial. Those who like her work will point out her sharp remarks, astute observation, lucid prose and deft style. Those who don’t will point out her support of the status-quo, the predictability of her plots, the inevitability of Austen appearing on a note once inhabited by Dickens.
What about Mrs Gaskell?
We can claim this proves Jane Austen’s standing in British culture, that it embeds women among our cultural icons, but there was another candidate who might have done both those things with an added twist.
The short, but popular, novel Cranford details, among a great deal else, the effect of a bank’s failure on a single lady of moderately advanced years and even more moderate income. Surely its author, Elizabeth Gaskell, would have been a fitting figure to grace a note and remind both producers and users of each tenner of the dangers of putting too much trust in unregulated banks.
But let’s not quibble; Austen’s importance both in literary and cultural terms cannot be denied; there’s a tidy Jane Austen industry to prove her value to commerce and above all, she was not only a woman, but a single woman earning her own keep. All of that makes her a more than worthy candidate for a £10 note, besides, she died in 1817 and who can resist a bicentenary?