July 20, 2017
Cents and Sensitivity: At long last, Jane Austen’s in the money, though not without problems
by Ian Dreiblatt
Good news for folks who love both money and wittily perceptive fiction: soon, you’ll be able to travel to the UK and buy whatever you need—pants to wear under your favourite trousers, a litre of petrol, even, if you’re having it large, some new trainers—with a cool wad of Janes.
That’s because the face of the whip-smart and hilarious Jane Austen—author of excellent books, proto-Tinder-genius, and person modern science has determined was either the victim of poisoning or not the victim of poisoning—will soon be adorning banknotes in her native country, joining the likes of Gabo and Garbo.
As Michael Schaub writes in the LA Times, a new line of ten-pound notes was unveiled this past Tuesday, the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, featuring her face foregrounded over a gravity-defying dreamscape in which her brother’s house, her writing desk, and Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of her novel Pride and Prejudice, all float moneyously together. (Sidenote: how do we know what Elizabeth Bennet, an imaginary person made of language, looks like?)
Some controversy has been brewing, though, over the likeness the Bank of England chose for the bills. As the Telegraph wrote back in May, there’s one surviving image of Austen made during her life, a sketch by her beloved sister Cassandra. After the author died, her nephew used that likeness as the basis for a new one, in which she came across as more youthful, rested, and smile-prone. It’s this latter, posthumous image—which historian and TV personality Lucy Worsley calls “the Georgian equivalent of airbrushing”—that Britons will be using to pay for their sausage rolls.
It’s hardly the end of the world, but this legit sucks. However chance happened to configure the front of Jane Austen’s head, that’s what a brilliant novelist looks like. Also, there are only two other writers whose images grace money in the UK, and while Charles Darwin knew how to rock a beard and a soft expression of noble wistfulness, we cannot help agreeing that God gave Charles Dickens the face of a goblin. Of course, this doesn’t detract from his achievements as an author — which is the whole point.
A second issue, which Steven Morris raises in the Guardian this week, concerns a quote from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that appears just below her face on the bills. “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like good reading!” Four years ago, John Mullan explained the problem:
The trouble is that these words are spoken by one of Austen’s most deceitful characters, a woman who has no interest in books at all: Caroline Bingley. She is sidling up to Mr Darcy, whom she would like to hook as a husband, and pretending that she shares his interests. He is reading a book, so she sits next to him and pretends to read one too. She is, Austen writes, “as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own” and “perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page”. He will not be distracted, so “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 gives a great yawn and says the words that will appear on the bank note.
So, yeah, that’s sort of embarrassing. Still, it could be worse, and besides, if there’s anything you shouldn’t be taking reading advice from, it’s money.
The new money is set to enter circulation on September 14. So mind your (mushy) peas and queues: it’s all about the Austens from then on.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.