Austen and austerity

Why the 19th-century novelist makes a perfect fit with the currency of post-recession Britain

Published: June 27, 2013 5:11 am

Why the 19th-century novelist makes a perfect fit with the currency of post-recession Britain

Natural selection will no doubt decide whether Charles Darwin gets to stay on Britain’s 10-pound note or whether he will be bumped off by Jane Austen in 2015. The Bank of England has already announced that a jowly Winston Churchill will replace prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the five-pound note,drawing howls of protest. Fry had been the only woman other than the queen to appear on currency notes. With campaigners threatening legal action under the 2010 Equality Act,the harried Bank has announced that Austen could replace Darwin. The 19th-century novelist proved to be a popular choice.

Jane Austen,chronicler of marriage and manners,has beaten suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in the fight for gender equality. But this should not be surprising. Though every novel is neatly tied up with a wedding,preferably two,Austen’s radical credentials have been well documented. No advocate for women’s lib could read Elizabeth Bennet’s set down to Mr Darcy without an involuntary “hear,hear”. Marriage may be the desired end,but her heroines must have a say in who their partner will be. Many discern in Austen’s work a laughing avowal of Wollstonecraft’s views. Besides,romance in Austen’s novels must always come with a handsome annual income. In Pride and Prejudice ,Mr Bingley,with 4,000 pounds a year,may be appealing,but Mr Darcy,with 10,000 pounds a year,is doubly so. Rackety young men with no fortune are soon weeded out of her stories — witness Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novels are shaped by the flow of money — inheritances,settlements,transactions made in the nick of time. So perhaps it is fitting that her face should be identified with currency.

Austen’s approval of thrift also makes her the perfect austerity novelist. Imagine the extravagant Horace Walpole on a 10-pound note,or the patrician Walter Scott. It would be enough to send Britain back into depression.

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