Due to come into circulation on 14th September 2017, the Bank of England’s new ten-pound note features, as everybody may know by now, Jane Austen. Previewed back in July 2013 in a Bank of England video, the design was again unveiled to great fanfare two hundred years to the day after the death of the novelist, on 18th July 1817. The brouhaha surrounding the concept of course proves the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
First, the portrait is not the original universally acknowledged to be by Jane’s sister Cassandra but based on the prettified version done for later Victorian editions of Jane-related works. The stern-looking individual with a mob cap was transmogrified into a plain Jane who was no threat to anyone; one could argue the banknote does her memory no favours.
Secondly, as the video commentary underlines, the fine conceit seemingly expressed in the Pride and Prejudice quote — “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” — is meant in the context of the novel to be ironic, spoken by the philistine flibbertigibbet Miss Bingley in chapter XI:
At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement …
In reference to Miss Bingley it is undoubtedly ironic, but perhaps we may grant that for our omniscient author this sentiment is entirely appropriate.
Next, the new banknote features an illustration by Isabel Bishop (1902–1988). This pen and black ink picture with a grey wash over pencil shows a scene from Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennet examining the letters her sister Jane had sent to her.
It’s a charming picture, though why this particular image has been chosen above all others is not very clear. Perhaps the subtle gradations of tone help to discourage forgery, though I’m not convinced.
The final image to present itself is of Godmersham Park near Ashford in Kent, owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight and supposedly the inspiration for some of the stately homes in her novels (such as Northanger Abbey). However, Goodnestone Park also claims a similar distinction, so — again — why Godmersham was chosen in preference is unclear.
In conclusion, then, there is satisfaction that a woman has been included in the gallery of significant Britons featured on banknotes (Winston Churchill on the £5 and Turner on the next £20 banknote due to be issued by 2020), but disappointment that there is so much of a debatable nature in the design.
But perhaps Jane herself, with her delicious sense of humour, would have laughed it all off as a storm in a teacup. Best leave the last word to the author, in lines on the Winchester races written three days before her death, on St Swithun’s Day (15th July 1817). Traditionally, if it rains on the saint’s day if will continue thus for another forty; Austen (fake news alert!) gives the reason for the saint’s displeasure.
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fix’d and determin’d
The company came & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d and ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he address’d them all standing aloof.
“Oh, subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal — By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer. Then further he said
These races & revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain
Let them stand — you shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain,
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July,
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers,
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.”
“I’ll give you storm in a teacup!”
Jane Austen: Collected Poems and verse of the Austen family
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by David Selwyn
Fyfield Books (in association with the Jane Austen Society) 1996