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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jane Austen & The Royals: The Ironic Parallel Between Her Appearing on the New 10-Pound Note and The Dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent

Earlier today, I read the above-linked, cogent article by Katrin Bennhold that ran in the NY Times yesterday, and was particularly struck by the following paragraph near the end:
“If feminists have been surprised at the force of the reaction, so have employees of the Bank of England, an economist at the bank said on condition of anonymity. The economist was not authorized to speak publicly. Jane Austen was picked precisely because of her broad appeal. She was not a feminist symbol and nobody had foreseen that selecting her would ignite controversy. “She has a wide popular and a varied political appeal,” said Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University and an Austen specialist. “Unlike someone like Emmeline Pankhurst, it’s more difficult to slot Austen politically. She’s embraced by conservatives and progressives both.”  
Several things leap out at me from the above-quoted passage:
First, now we have some internal confirmation that the decision by the Bank to sanitize and neuter Jane Austen, via the choice of the bland quotation, the bland (false) image of Jane Austen’s face, and the snobbish image of Godmersham as her “home” instead of humble Chawton Cottage, as I summarized 8 days ago here…..
…really must have been entirely intentional and cynical on the Bank’s part, and not merely clueless.  I.e., the Bank, in choosing Jane Austen, clearly believed it was running away from any overtly feminist icon, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, and instead was retreating not to the real subversive Jane Austen, but to the mythological, nonthreatening Jane Austen. The Bank (in its genuine ignorance of Jane Austen’s actual radical feminism) felt she would appease everyone and offend no one.  In the Bank’s mind, Jane Austen would, in other words, be just like the Queen, omnipresent on all English currency and yet invisible and, above all, most important, unthreatening to male privilege and power.
The quote by Devoney Looser (an excellent Austen scholar who, by the way, way back in 1995, as the first huge wave of Austenmania rose up, was out in the forefront in editing one of the leading mainstream scholarly books on Jane Austen’s feminism) gets to the heart of the irony of the Bank’s choice. It is indeed factually correct that Jane Austen is “embraced by conservatives and progressives both”---and the reason that is correct, is that the conservatives have been following the “mythological Jane Austen” party line, and have no clue that their predecessors in privilege were actually the main butts of Jane Austen’s sharpest, but also most subtle, irony and satire—Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park being perhaps the best example.
Which brings me to my principal observation--as more than a week has now elapsed since the news of the Bank’s choice of Jane Austen to appear on the 2017 rollout of the 10-pound note, there’s been time for some of the more subtle ramifications to emerge. It occurs to me now that there is a special irony in all of this furor, that (aside from the outrage Jane Austen would be feeling, and expressing, about the dangerous abuse directed at Caroline Criado-Perez & other advocates for female inclusion on the bank note, by vicious and cowardly woman-haters) would have the true Jane Austen LHFAO---uproariously so. That irony is that there is a strong, but completely unwitting, parallel between Jane Austen appearing on the 10-pound bank note in 2017, on the one hand, and her Dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent in 1816 (2 centuries and one year earlier), on the other. Here is my explanation, in a nutshell.
I have for a number of years been asserting my firm belief that Jane Austen, who savagely satirized the “Prince of Whales” (with an “h”) in Emma, as first discovered in 2006 by Colleen Sheehan….
….actually tricked the vain Prince Regent into issuing her, via his toadyish librarian, James Stanier Clarke, a regal command that she dedicate that very novel to him, which was, in another sense, “dedicated” to skewering him in the worst light possible!
So, imagine the delight Jane Austen would feel were she alive today, licking her chops at the prospect of appearing on the 10-pound note, two centuries plus a year later, with the Prince Regent’s collateral descendant, Queen Elizabeth II, on the flip side. It would take Jane Austen right back to her satirical April Fool’s letter to the Prince’s toadyish librarian, James Stanier Clarke, which was part and parcel of her audacious and successful put-on…..
….Once again, she’d be rubbing shoulders, metaphorically speaking, with the Royals, in a satirical, not a genuflecting, stance.
But, all irony and humor aside, I am also sure that two centuries and a year later, she’d much rather that she be represented on the bill as she really was and really lived and really believed, and not as she has been misrepresented for two centuries. If women really have come a long way, baby, then it’s been long enough for women like Jane Austen not to have conceal their genius and their politics behind a nonthreatening mask/face.  
Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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