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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The New TEN-POUND Banknote Honoring Jane Austen: “I shall keep my TEN POUNDS too, to wrap myself up in next winter….”

As several of my non-Janeite friends and relatives have recently alerted me (thanks to you all!), and surely the rest of you reading along here have also heard by now, the BBC….

….and other news outlets reported yesterday what I and other obsessively informed Janeites have been expecting for several months now, which is that the Bank of England has finally made it official: it is going to be replacing the image of Charles Darwin with that of Jane Austen on its new ten pound banknotes, beginning in 2017.

There have been a variety of reactions from Janeites on the Internet, mostly applauding this turn of events, and I certainly share that sentiment in general terms. Official recognition of this kind has been long overdue from the financial powers-that-be in the nation where Jane Austen spent her entirely life, wrote her six immortal novels, and earned a scant few hundred pounds altogether from them (in contrast to the countless millions of pounds made by other people on her novels and biographies in the two centuries since her death).

However, even in the midst of this happy moment of recognition for Jane Austen, I wish to strongly  register serious complaints as to three crucial and related elements of the proposed ten pound note—two images and one line of text--which I urge be addressed and remedied, if this overdue recognition of one of England’s brightest historical lights (and not merely among the females either) is to do her memory the truest justice, and not constitute a sad mockery thereof.

Before I get to my own complaints, I want to recognize that fellow Janeite Ellen Moody recently blogged here…

…expressing disapproval of the choice of image for Jane Austen’s face, and pointing out the actual identity of the speaker of the words to be shown on the banknote. However, I go much, much further than Ellen in my assertion that the visuals on this banknote are wrong-in fact, they almost could not be more wrong.  As I will demonstrate below, step by step, the Bank’s choices would suppress Jane Austen’s true face and true opinions, especially (and most ironically) about money.

JANE AUSTEN’S FACE:  It is mind-boggling that the Bank of England has decided to use the longstanding, widely disseminated, but fatally sanitized Victorian-Era portrait of Jane Austen (the one shown in the image of the proposed banknote in the above-linked BBC story). This image has been criticized countless times by Austenian scholars (especially biographers) over the past few decades as a patently intentional distortion of its source. So, the Bank can hardly plead ignorance or surprise that this is a highly objectionable portrayal of Jane Austen.

It is all the more shocking, though, because this image has been chosen instead of the harder-edged but authentic portrait of Jane Austen drawn by sister Cassandra when Jane was around 35 years old, which was the original from which the Bowdlerized version was created, and which to this day remains on display, where it has been for many years, in the National Portrait Gallery:

The proposed banknote image is the one which nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh used for his 1870 Memoir which was highly instrumental in promoting a very non-threatening, passive, unambitious persona of his aunt Jane, which still largely prevails to this very day. In contrast, look at the original, authentic portrait by JA’s sister, and you can see why it was not used in the universal sexism of 1870. It shows a strong, tough, self-reliant woman not terribly concerned with whether a man is going to like what he sees, and still less with whether he want to marry her (Jane Austen never married, and this was her choice). So, this choice by the Bank in 2013, after all the advances achieved by feminism during the past half century, will merely promote a dreadfully misleading and anti-feminist stereotype of a writer whose feminism shines through every page of her writing.

What a travesty then, to cause this patently false image of Jane Austen to pass through millions of hands and therefore in front of millions of eyes, giving it a reach out into the public at large far beyond the much smaller range it has had up till the present. Who is in the right on this one? The National Portrait Gallery or the Bank on England? You now know my answer.

But that’s only the beginning of the travesty….

JANE AUSTEN’S HOME: The Bank has decided to display an image of Godmersham on the face of the banknote, as if it were the best representation available of the place or places Jane Austen called “home”. We see a ghostly image of Jane Austen floating over the lovely grounds of a vast estate, as if Jane Austen lived in such a place, like her Elizabeth Bennet after she and Mr. Darcy were wed.

The problem is that Godmersham was never Jane Austen’s home, it was the great estate in Kent which wound up being owned by Jane Austen’s elder brother Edward Austen (who was quasi-adopted by rich childless relatives and took their surname Knight in his thirties), and which Jane Austen visited a half dozen times or so during her adulthood.

Whereas Jane Austen herself lived almost all of her life in infinitely more modest residences in Hampshire, first in her birthplace at Steventon Rectory, then in rental apartments in Bath, then in cramped rental apartments in Southampton, and finally as to her final eight years in Chawton Cottage.

It was at Chawton Cottage that Jane Austen finally had her proverbial “room of her own” and where she finally was able to get all of her novels written and published (the last two published within a year after her death). When Jane Austen visited Godmersham and wrote back about it explicitly to sister Cassandra, and when she wrote about Godmersham in a veiled manner in her novels, she satirized the rich and aristocratic denizens of that peculiar world, observing them with clinical precision like Darwin observing finches in the Galapagos (actually, there were “Finches” among the families in the Godmersham circle!).

So it is particularly grotesque for Godmersham to be depicted as her “home” where she did her writing  on the bank note dedicated to Jane Austen, when the Bank could so easily have chosen the true shrine of Janeism, Chawton Cottage, a plain simple house which is visited by Janeites from around the world every day of the year---a home consisting of four women and no men.

But this choice is, as you can see the pattern by now, part and parcel with the selection of the portrait of Jane Austen’s face, discussed above. It’s part of the mythological Jane Austen, not the real one.

And as if that were not enough, I’ve got a final complaint.

JANE AUSTEN’S WORDS:  The Bank has decided to display on the face of the banknote a statement written by Jane Austen for her most famous and beloved novel, Pride & Prejudice:

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

At first glance, this would seem completely laudatory to Jane Austen, given that the speech comes from Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous and most beloved novel, and it is a speech which, after all, straightforwardly refers to the obvious source of the Austenmania of the past few decades, i.e., that Janeites love to read Jane Austen’s novels, especially Pride & Prejudice! What could be more appropriate?

Well, it appears to be an act of cluelessness here rather than intentional distortion, that the speech quoted is given by Caroline Bingley, archrival of Elizabeth Bennet for Mr. Darcy’s courtship attentions and affections! Miss Bingley is the jealous, jaded, spoiled heiress who judges everyone solely by how much income their investments earn, and how nice a neighborhood they grace with their presence in London while visiting there from their country estate. And she never reads except for show!

So for Caroline Bingley to be the voice of Jane Austen on the new 10-pound note is, to put it mildly, hugely ironic. Which would not be a bad thing, if that irony were somehow recognized, in some manner, so that the satire of the snobbish and selfish rich of Jane Austen’s world, which is at the heart of Jane Austen’s fictional perspective, were made clear. But that is not the case here, the Bank of England has apparently not bothered to have this line vetted by any Austen scholar who might have pointed out this gaffe, or, worse, is well aware of the incongruity but chooses to ignore such criticism, because they think this bland platitude can offend no one—but it can also mislead.  

Because Jane Austen’s satire of the rich really was a prime objective of her writing. Students of her biography know how drastically her life possibilities were circumscribed by lack of money, how she did not earn a penny from her writing until she was 36 and had been writing for a quarter century.

Jane Austen as much as any writer who ever walked the British Isles understood that money does talk, whether its “face” is covered by quotes and images from famous authors or not. W.H. Auden was 100% correct when he famously opined as follows about Jane Austen in his fantastical Letter to Byron:

“She wrote [her novels] for posterity, she said:
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
   Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
   An English spinster of the middle class
   Describe the amourous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety,
The economic basis of society. 

Indeed. The creator of a money uber-snob like Caroline Bingley, or a greedy female Scrooge like Fanny Dashwood, or, perhaps worst of all, the hypocritically, sneakily greedy, plantation-owning Sir Thomas Bertram, patriarch of Mansfield Park….

…would have wished for something more subtle and provocative of thoughtful reflection on the worship of Mammon on a banknote bearing the image of such a fiery iconoclast about that worship.
And here’s the craziest part—entirely unintentionally, unless someone at the Bank of England has been reading my blog post of  2 ½ years ago…

….It turns out that the TEN-POUND denomination of the banknote chosen to bear Jane Austen’s image and words happens to be one which had special significance for Jane Austen, both personally and as a writer! Here is a restatement of the relevant parts of my above-linked blog post:
There are approximately 154 of Jane Austen’s letters which survive in whole or in part. Letter 14, dated December 18-19, 1798, was written by her to sister Cassandra, while Jane was home with her parents in Steventon, and Cassandra was visiting rich brother Edward and his family at Godmersham. Jane begins this letter, as she began many of them, in high satirical tone:

“Your letter came quite as soon as I expected, and so your letters will always do, because I have made it a rule not to expect them till they come, in which I think I consult the ease of us both.
It is a great satisfaction to us to hear that your business is in a way to be settled, and so settled as to give you as little inconvenience as possible. You are very welcome to my father's name and to his services if they are ever required in it. I shall keep my TEN POUNDS too, to wrap myself up in next winter….”

The manuscript of First Impressions (the earliest, lost version of what was eventually revised repeatedly and published as Pride & Prejudice in 1813) had been taken by Jane Austen’s father to a publisher a year earlier in 1797, but it had been rejected it out of hand (which is somewhat similar to the two teams which selected players ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1983 NBA draft!).

But, as I argued in my above linked blog post, Jane Austen still must have had this story of the Bennet family very much on her brain as she wrote Letter 14, and one of the key bits of evidence thereof was the striking resonance between JA’s writing "I shall keep my ten pounds too, to wrap myself up in next winter” in Letter 14, and the narration in Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 50, recounting the manner in which the astonishing, even miraculous, news of Wickham's and Lydia's marriage is received at Longbourn by Mr. Bennet:

"[Mr. Bennet] had never before supposed that, could Wickham be prevailed on to marry his daughter, it would be done with so little inconvenience to himself as by the present arrangement. He would scarcely be TEN POUNDS a year the loser by the hundred that was to be paid them; for, what with her board and pocket allowance, and the continual presents in money which passed to her through her mother's hands, Lydia's expences had been very little within that sum. "

So, put the two passages together, and see JA's imaginism at full tilt. JA writes of this mysterious, perhaps imaginary ten pound note (or was it a pile of one pound notes?) she may or may not actually be receiving, as if it were a shawl or tippet, to be wrapt around JA to keep her warm next winter (already an absurdity, because she is writing Letter 14 in the midst of the current winter!). Jane Austen is speaking metaphorically, recognizing that money can function just like a warm coat, by providing you the necessities of life.

Whereas in P&P, the Bennet family avoids being literally thrust out into the cold, financially speaking, when Lydia’s scandalous elopement with Wickham is sanitized by marriage, which then permits both Jane and Lizzy to marry the (very rich) husbands of their choice!  It almost seems as if Jane Austen has written this introductory section of Letter 14 as a parody of Lydia's escapades with Wickham, casting Cassandra in the role of Lydia, and Revd. Austen, of course, as Mr. Bennet. And it’s no coincidence, I claim, that the witty Mr. Bennet exaggerates the smallness of the amount he has to pay to solve all his problems.

So…based on this analysis, wouldn’t it be much more appropriate for the new 10-pound bank note to bear the phrase “I shall keep my ten pounds too, to wrap myself up in next winter….”, with these rich, ironic overtones pointing to the economic satire which is so integral to a deeper understanding of Pride & Prejudice, instead of the bland and hypocritical platitude which issues from the mouth of the meanest character in the novel?

Come on, Bank of England, clean up this mess, get it right, and really honor England’s Jane properly, especially in this the bicentennial year of Pride & Prejudice!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: There’s still more tangential irony here. The Austen family was part of a larger social circle in Hampshire and nearby counties that included the Portal family, which for the past three centuries has (if I am correctly informed) exclusively manufactured for the Bank of England the actual paper that bank notes consist of! That span included Jane Austen’s entire lifetime, and there is a backstory with respect to the Portal family which I have previously detected in Jane Austen’s fiction, as elaborated in these four posts, for those interested in such a tangent:

So Jane Austen would be laughing at the irony of descendants of the Portals she knew producing the paper that would bear her images and words. And, by the way, the second of the four above linked posts about the Portals and Jane Austen includes the text of the cynical charade which the youthful Jane Austen wrote which had, as an answer, “bank note”:

You may lie on my first by the side of a stream,  ==> “bank”
And my second compose to the nymph you adore, =
> “note”
But if, when you've none of my whole, her esteem
And affection diminish--think of her no more!

So, perhaps the text of the above charade might have been put on the backside of the 10-pound note, as a fitting companion to the satire I proposed for the front.

P.P.S.: I also wish to note in passing the likelihood that Charles Darwin would himself have approved of his being replaced on the 10-pound note by Jane Austen, given that Darwin and his wife were both lifelong Janeites, and given also that, as I reiterated very recently….

…Darwin’s stepgrandmother, who perhaps was the very person to introduce him to the wonders of Jane Austen’s novels as a child, was the widow of his famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and also was the (heretofore) mysterious “Mrs. Pole” who gave such a laudatory opinion to Jane Austen about Mansfield Park in 1815 shortly after its publication. So, in a very real sense, what goes around comes around, when it comes to literature, science, and money.

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