Jane Austen and the £10 banknote

We now know the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has decided the next £10 banknote will feature the image of Jane Austen. The issue of a new banknote doesn’t normally get much press. But not this time, for two reasons: that Jane Austen was a woman, and that a few odd people thought the best way to greet this revelation was to tweet incriminating obscenities, which resulted in the arrest of at least one of them. And the importance of her being a woman was raised a notch because Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, is soon to be replaced by yet another bloke on the £5 note – good old Sir Winston Churchill.

And that’s fine. If male-female ratios are how we measure right and wrong, then it’s a good thing that we shall be using Jane and not John-notes to buy books from quaint, old-fashioned bookshops. There is, however, a more significant reason than sex for choosing Jane Austen. It is important – or appropriate, considering the many other historical figures that would do just as well – because she is, above all, a great figure in English literature.

We wonder what we can do to earn our national living in this age of growing international competition. Whether we think EU membership, monetary stimulus, sound money or deregulation (or all, or some, or something else entirely) are the policies best able to help us do this, it is essential that we also recognise what it is that we do well – and celebrate it. That, among other things, is literature, not least because of our great British literary tradition, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Byron, Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot and many more.

There’s a lot of men in that list, I admit, but women do feature more prominently towards the end – and I stopped in 1880 with the death of George Eliot (her name being Mary Evans at birth). Successive years since then have seen a continuing shift upwards in the prominence of female writers; and, today, seven of the thirteen nominations for the 2013 Man Booker Longlist are female. I know it’s not an exclusively British prize, but the balance shows how the literary landscape has changed.

The cynic might say the male-female balance achieved by the judges is suspiciously close to fifty percent, with the error in favour of women just to make sure no one can cry discrimination. But this is absurd. A brief look at the amazon.co.uk fiction bestsellers list shows that the top five books are all written by women. This should not surprise us. Women, we are told, are now about a third more likely to start a degree course than their male counterparts. They are also, so the surveys suggest, more avid readers of fiction than men. Soon we might need a movement to redress this new imbalance!

But if literature is what is important, could the figure chosen by the Bank of England to adorn the £10 note not have been a man – say, Dickens or Shakespeare? As worthy as Jane Austen is, these two figures are surely more significant in terms of international recognition. Another way for Britain to earn a living is tourism. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside, along with Dickensian caricature bring ‘em in, so to speak. I’m not so sure Jane Austen has the same pull factor.

The answer, however, is no. It is entirely fitting to have a literary figure on the note, but it is better that it is Jane Austen and not another man. It would be absurd to have not one female – excepting HM The Queen – on the four major notes in circulation. No, really, it would. The reason is not one of equality. Equality, other than the one about equality under the law, can lead to strange and often patronising outcomes. The reason is much more simple: Why on earth not? Just as children like to see a mummy and a daddy in the home, why would we think they would not like to see a mummy and a daddy figure (By that I mean a man and a woman, not their actual parents) outside the home and, for instance, on their money – when, of course, they are old enough to get their little mitts on the loot.

One word of caution, though. We are told that Jane’s portrait is ‘adapted’ from a rough sketch. In other words, we don’t know that it’s a true likeness. I’m not saying it’s a fake, rather it’s not entirely real – a fiction you might say (Yes, you can take that as a double pun). Let us, therefore, hope our new monetary guardian, Mark Carney, knows how to look after the value of our currency as much as he knows how to make it look attractive and appealing to a cross-section of society. Let’s hope the new, Jane Austen-adorned notes are not going to end up a mere fiction.