It’s been in the air for a few weeks now, but yesterday the Bank of England confirmed it: Beginning in 2017 it will issue 10-pound notes featuring the image of Jane Austen.
This is—as almost everybody agrees—a really good idea. As popular and critically acclaimed as Austen is, she’s arguably still underrated as a novelist. There were any number of great novels written before Austen, but hers are the first that feel, for lack of a better word, modern. More than any other writer in English, she has defined the structure and tone and feel of the novel for the past 200 years. If that’s not enough to get you on money, I don’t know what is.
Though Austen’s selection has a political component, too. Florence Nightingale appeared on the 10 pound note from 1975 to 1994, but Elizabeth Fry (a prison reformer) is the only woman who currently appears on English banknotes besides the Queen. When the Bank of England announced that Fry would be replaced by Winston Churchill in 2016, there were widespread protests. Hence Austen, who will bump Charles Darwin, who has appeared on 10-pound notes since 2000.
To the Bank’s credit, they’re not just using Austen’s image: They’re doing it properly. The banknotes will include a drawing of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice; an image of Godmersham Park, which was owned by Austen’s brother and provided inspiration for some of her work; and a picture of Austen’s writing table.
The only false note on the note is the inclusion of this quote from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”, which is fine as far as it goes, but should have been disallowed purely on the grounds that it’s uttered by the snobbish, envious Miss Bingley. If they were going for quotes about reading, they might have tried this one from Northanger Abbey: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Except that it’s probably illegal to say “stupid” on a British banknote.
They could also have quoted Austen on the subject of money: One of the things that made her work so original in its own time, and so enduringly relevant in ours, is the frankness and insight with which she treats the topic of money. They could have used this one, for example: “Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does” (from Emma). Or this: “Money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it” (Sense and Sensibility). Or this: “Where people are really attached, poverty itself is wealth” (Northanger Abbey).
Austen’s inclusion is a win, however little and late, for women, of course, but she also represents another under-represented sector: authors. She’s not the first writer to appear on a British note, but she’s in good company: Shakespeare appeared on the 20-pound note from 1970 to 1993. For the record, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns have appeared on Scottish banknotes, and Joyce, Swift and Yeats have appeared on Irish money.
And let’s not forget Australia, which has honored Henry Lawson and Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (he wrote “The Man from Snowy River” and “Waltzing Matilda.”)
As slow as the U.K. has been to honor women and writers, they’re miles ahead of the U.S. We’ve made token gestures, by putting Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller (she’s on Alabama’s quarter, I believe), and Sacagawea on coins. But where are the novelists? So far the precious real estate on our banknotes has been reserved almost exclusively for political figures. Is that all America stands for? Or is the irony of putting writers on banknotes —which they’ll probably never have very many of — just too great?
Regardless, here are six nominees, chosen primarily for the aptness of their accompanying quotes:
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Money often costs too much.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” (Or the less obvious, but to me more profound: “The victor belongs to the spoils.”)
Herman Melville: “The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, — what will compare with it?”
Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
John Updike: “Sex is like money; only too much is enough.
Edith Wharton: “The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.”