Searching (in vain) for the Real Jane Austen on the Proposed British 10-Pound Note
& Exposing the Still-Prevailing 1870 Myth-making of Nephew James Edward Austen Leigh
While all Janeites worthy of the name ought to continue to closely monitor and support the progress of Catherine Criado-Perez’s inspiring pushback against abusive, threatening Internet thugs….
…we should also keep our eye on the ball that Ms. Criado-Perez’s initial efforts put in play, i.e., her having led the successful charge to push the Bank of England to agree to put Jane Austen on the new 10-pound note in 2017.
I see that a few informed commentators, like Janine Barchas…
…are echoing my own bill of attainder against the Bank…..
…for its staggeringly bad choices for the images and words they (tentatively, I hear---I sure hope so!) plan to put on the proposed British 10-pound note in 2017, in honor of Jane Austen. If we don’t get them to correct each of the three major gaffes, then the honor will be a hollow one, as it won’t be true to the ethos of the greatest female writer in English literary history, but instead will be an empty paean to the mythical personage invented after her death by some of her closest family members!
However, let’s be realistic. The commentaries of a handful of informed Austen scholars like myself and Barchas, are still largely invisible and unknown to the vast majority even of informed literate people in the English speaking world, who continue to buy into the false stereotype about Jane Austen which the current concepts promulgated by the Bank of England would only perpetuate and even expand. So it’s really important that these critiques be spread far and wide on the Internet, if the kind of pressure is to be brought on the Bank to get it right the second time around.
As I previously have noted, there is a sad irony in that the one thing that most of the comments about the new banknote, both pro and con, agree about, is that Jane Austen was not particularly feminist, not particularly interested in the wider world, and, worst of all, that even though she did not come from money, somehow she was totally comfortable with the sharp economic divide of her world between the haves and the have nots (which latter group included her!).
As I noted in my above linked post about the three large errors by the Bank, using the fake image of Jane Austen on the note would take us back 143 years to the primary architect of the mythical Jane Austen was her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh (or JEAL), whose 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen was the primary vehicle for generating that mythology. It was an amazingly successful bit of propaganda.
I have previously blogged on several occasions about the clearly intentional editorial distortions and outright lies that JEAL promulgated in the Memoir, such as these…
And that’s only skimming the surface. I want to conclude by bringing to your attention what I believe to be the best treatment out there in print on the subject of JEAL’s deceptions in the Memoir--- Searching for Jane Austen (2004), by Emily Auerbach.
My source for what follows are Chapter 1 of her book, entitled “Dear Aunt Jane: Putting Her Down and Touching Her Up”, but you will find much of that same material in the 2005 print Persuasions, under the title "Searching for Jane Austen: restoring the 'fleas' and 'bad breath'."
Here are some excerpts from Auerbach’s first chapter, which perfectly sum up why the Bank of England should change everything in their planned 10-pound note (while keeping Jane Austen, of course!). Tell me if you don’t get M.A.D. just reading what JEAL did!:
“Book jackets of new Austen studies sport prettified images of her face surrounded with flowers and lace, and comedians joke about men dragged to Austen movies against their wills. Old attitudes die hard. Old texts die hard, too…Internet users [and here I would add, the Bank of England] priding themselves on their state-of-the-art technology unknowingly download not only distorted representations of Austen’s face, but also incomplete or altered versions of her writing. As we will see, Austen’s relatives and early editors would be pleased to know this: they worked hard to sweeten her image, weaken her words, and soften her bite. Paradoxically, JA nowadays seems everywhere yet still hard to find. Hence my title: Searching for Jane Austen.”
And then this about JEAL’s techniques for deception and distortion:
“Like his brother Henry, James Austen emphasized his sister’s mild and traditional feminine nature….His sister did not let her writing inflame her vanity or pride or distract her from completing useful chores, James insisted. James’s son, JEAL, continued this verbal softening in his 1870 Memoir…We are still feeling the effects of the JA myth constructed in 1870 for public consumption ….Noting that her nephews and nieces ‘did not think of her as being clever’….JEAL emphasizes those qualities considered ladylike …JEAL presents his modest aunt’s occupation as a little hobby for her own amusement and claims she felt no mortification about her lack of early success…”
Then, after detailing the cynical, calculating and unacknowledged editing of the first JA letter JEAL refers to in the Memoir, Auerbach brilliantly concludes:
“In effect, JEAL creates a brilliant Catch-22. After removing references to politics and literature from the letters, he then observes that his songbird-like aunt takes ‘no notice of politics or public events’ and avoids ‘discussions of literature.’ This pattern continues throughout the Memoir…”
Well, it’s time to end the Catch-22, and make sure that the new 10-pound note becomes a ‘teachable moment’ for a new generation of Brits, so that they will not carry the distortions and myths about Jane Austen around literally in their pockets and wallets, but also in their minds, but will instead recognize who she really was, and how worthy she truly is of the honor being bestowed on her legacy.
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