(This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 10 November 2020. Enjoy!)
On 14 September 2017, a £10 banknote featuring Jane Austen entered circulation.
The launch coincided with the 200th anniversary of the death of the writer, who passed away prematurely on 18 July 1817. It’s a recognition conveyed to very few individuals (and a tiny number of women). All in all, an incredible honour.
Janeites celebrated the arrival of the new note with much jubilation, and I was elated when I got hold of my first Jane Austen note. However, a second look at it left me bewildered.
The choices of the Bank of England for the note seemed, at best, rather unfortunate – and at worst, a positive boycott of what should have been a poignant remembrance of the author.
1. The portrait
The note, as you would expect, features a portrait of the author. The slight problem is that it is based on a watercolour painted over 50 years after Jane Austen’s death by someone who had never met her. The painting was a commission by Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who wanted it to illustrate the biography he wrote of his famous aunt.
The portrait is loosely based on Cassandra Austen’s sketch of her sister – the only verified likeness we have of Austen. However, the similarities are remarkably few. The painter took many liberties to “beautify” his subject; it was Victorian Photoshop at its best, fuelling the idea that Austen was a gentle and harmless writer of sugary romances. It’s not something she would have appreciated.
2. The see-through window
The see-through window at the front and back of the note features Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s resting place. It’s a pretty metallic image, and the foil is gold on the front window, silver on the back.
My objection to this choice is that Jane’s life in Winchester wasn’t particularly happy. She moved there to undergo medical treatment, but she passed away after just over two months. I find it a rather gloomy memento to put on a note supposedly celebrating Austen’s life and oeuvre.
3. The heroine
In the back of the note, there’s a picture showing a young woman, said to be Elizabeth Bennet. The spirited protagonist of Pride and Prejudice is one of Austen’s most loved heroines, which makes her an excellent choice. But wait, what is Lizzie doing? Well… she is sitting down at a desk, quietly penning a letter.
Really? Wasn’t there a better way to portray such a lively and witty character? Here are some ideas that would have worked better: showing her in a bracing countryside walk with her sister Jane; engaging in some verbal sparring with Mr Darcy; or marvelling at the grandiosity of Pemberley. Which brings me to the next point…
4. The house
The back of the note features Godmersham Park House, the estate of Austen’s brother Edward, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family. Austen visited Godmersham Park regularly, but not exactly as a guest: as a spinster sister, she was expected to “make herself useful” and help with the many nieces and nephews.
A much better choice would have been the cottage at Chawton. After years of wandering from place to place, Austen finally found stability in Chawton, where was at her most productive. There, she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and most of Persuasion. It’s also where she most likely revised Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. I think it deserved a place in the note.
5. The quote
Jane Austen, famous for her witty remarks and acute observations about every aspect of life and death, is eminently quotable. So who had the unhappy idea to feature the famously insincere “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading” quote on the £10 note?
Does anybody really think that Austen would have liked one of her Mean Girls to have that honour?
Don’t get me wrong. Caroline Bingley is one of my favourite Austen characters. Her hypocrisy, selfishness and rudeness towards Elizabeth only make her fate more delicious. I like her so much that I even gave her a second chance in Miss Price’s Decision.
Nevertheless, having this quote on the Jane Austen note makes no sense.
6. The amount
Ten is a nice, round number, but in the context of Jane Austen’s life, it has bittersweet connotations. £10 is exactly the sum paid by publisher Crosby & Co in 1803 for Austen’s Susan, thought to be an early version of Northanger Abbey. Happy days!
The problem, of course, is that the manuscript remained unpublished. In the years that followed the sale, Jane experienced varying degrees of hope, disappointment and anxiety over the manuscript until she bought it back 13 years later. Perhaps £10 wasn’t the most appropriate note amount for Austen, considering what we know about her life.
7. The signature
Jane Austen was a prolific letter writer. Even after Cassandra’s heavy editing, we still have dozens of her letters, many of which feature her famous signature. However, out of all the possibilities available, guess which one the Bank of England chose for the note?
Yes, the signature that Austen stamped on her will.
Something tells me that there are no Janeites in the ranks of the Bank of England.
In the meantime, I rest my case….
What are your thoughts on the above? Have you managed to get hold of a £10 note featuring Jane Austen?