Austen on the £10 note – genuine victory for equality?

By Dr Julian North, University of Leicester.

Jane Austen will be depicted on the £10 note from 2017. This is the direct result of the campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez, threatening to take the Bank of England to court for discrimination, after Sir Mervyn King announced the ousting of Elizabeth Fry – the only woman, apart from the Queen, to feature on an English banknote. Is this a genuine victory for equality or little more than a PR gesture that will bring the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, some easy credit?

The campaign itself is to be applauded. As Zoe Williams has argued, it can be linked with others such as the Everyday Sexism Project, which ‘has deployed the power of social media rather than surrendered to the misogynist tropes it throws up’ (‘The Jane Austen Banknote and the Power of Women’, Guardian, 23 July 2013). But what about the choice of Austen? It is a clever move, since she is not only hugely popular, but has been valued both as a deeply conservative and a subversively radical figure. On the one hand, we might say that she is a safe bet for the establishment, as a white, canonical author, whose novels are most widely celebrated these days for their romantic glow and ‘heritage’ appeal, as witnessed in countless screen adaptations. On the other hand, readers have always loved her social satire and her focus on the woman’s point of view. Her concern with the social injustices experienced by women has been emphasised by academic critics, of course, but it has also been highlighted in some of the screen adaptations and the recent biopics of Austen (Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets). Understandably, Ciado Perez chose to stress this aspect of Austen in her comments to the press:  ‘All her books are about how women are trapped and misrepresented. It is really sad that she was saying that 200 years ago and I am still having to say that today’. In this light it is worth looking a little more closely at the images that will appear on the note. Which vision of Austen do they, in fact, endorse?

The first thing to notice is the choice of portrait. It is from the engraved frontis piece portrait to J. E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1870. This is a second-hand image of Austen, adapted from Cassandra’s sketch of her sister, done from life. Cassandra’s sketch was of a slightly cross-looking woman, arms folded, the lines of middle-age beginning to show. As Katherine Sutherland and others have noted, the 1870 engraving considerably prettified this original sketch, giving readers a more serene, younger and more domesticated Jane. It is a process of prettification that was typical of portraits of female celebrities in the nineteenth century (images of Charlotte Bronte also made her look happier and younger as the years passed) and is all-too familiar, of course, today. Admittedly, Cassandra’s sketch is amateur and faint in parts, but it has a feeling of authenticity about it and presents a much more forthright and even truculent Austen than the more conventional woman in the version chosen by the Bank of England. In this respect, the campaigners would be right to be disappointed.

The background of the banknote depicts Godmersham Park in Kent – one of the estates (along with Chawton) inherited by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, who was adopted by a wealthy family as a boy. Again this accentuates the conservative aspect of Austen, whose novel, Mansfield Park can be read as a celebration of the ideal of the English country estate as a microcosm of the well-governed society. In practice, the ideal breaks down in this novel, not least because, as postcolonial readings have pointed out, the wealth of Mansfield Park is founded on the slave trade – as was the case with so many English country estates. We might also note that the country estates owned by Austen’s brother represented a life of privilege from which Jane and her female relatives were excluded, except as dependents on Edward’s charity. However, the picturesque image on the bank note hardly encourages such thoughts.

And then we have the quotation from Pride and Prejudice: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’. This would seem unexceptionable, except that if you look it up you find that it was not (as the banknote implies) said by Austen herself, but by Caroline Bingley, a snobbish and self-seeking young woman, who is Elizabeth Bennet’s rival for Mr. Darcy. It is worth looking at the passage the line comes from to understand the full irony of the original statement:

“Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library. No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement…”

The people from the Bank of England have chosen to emblazon across their note an insincere endorsement of reading by a non-reader trying to impress her man. Jane Austen would have laughed.

So, two cheers for Mark Carney, but I would suggest some changes to the images on the note. Let’s have Cassandra’s original portrait of Jane Austen against a backdrop depicting the cottage at Chawton where the sisters and their mother lived, down the road from the big house owned by Edward. We also need a new quotation from Austen’s fiction. Any suggestions?

 

Dr Julian North is Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of Leicester.

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