Irony in Jane Austen bank note

Irony in Jane Austen bank note

When my friend Molly, another Jane Austen lover, informed me that our beloved author would be on the UK’s new £10 note, I replied that I wish I could spend one. Thinking more creatively, Molly said she would like to frame one.

The design of the note was unveiled by the Bank of England this week, and the bills are expected to be in circulation in September. This year is the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s death.

Austen fans’ delight was tempered by irritation over the quotation chosen for beneath Austen’s image: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

If you aren’t intimately acquainted with Pride and Prejudice, that might seem a perfect quotation to honor an author. But Austen connoisseurs cringed because they recognized the source: the hypocritical Caroline Bingley trying to impress hero Darcy. She has no real interest in books. Austen is being honored with an insincere statement by a character who doesn't read.

The quotation comes up, often without reference to the particular book or speaker, if you Google “Jane Austen quotes,” so I suspect that’s how it ended up on the note. The Bank of England governor suggested that it is a nod to Austen’s characteristic irony.

I tried to think of Austen quotations about books and reading that might have been chosen and started to understand the difficulty of finding a suitable one, if the Bank of England folks even looked beyond the one they chose.

Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice “was regardless of time” when reading, and his daughter Mary “should infinitely prefer a book” to giddy companionship. But neither Bennet is a role model deserving to be featured.

The impeccably behaved Anne Elliot of Persuasion is a role model and sincerely interested in reading. She recommends to Captain Benwick, who has been reading poetry as he grieves his late fiancee, that a larger allowance of prose in his daily study might render him less emotional. Not a pithy phrase.

The passionate Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility says that the “beautiful lines” of the poet William Cowper have “frequently almost driven me wild.” Jokes would be made of that — and why celebrate poetry on a bank note honoring a novelist?

An Austen quote that frequently appears on tote bags, coffee mugs, and other commercial items is “. . . if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” It’s from her juvenilia, not her well-known novels, and the preference for long books is not universal.

In Emma, Mr. Knightley bemoans the fact that Emma draws up very good reading lists but doesn’t have the “industry and patience” to read the books. What could you do with that? “Don’t be like Emma”?

In Mansfield Park, Edmund guides Fanny’s reading. He “recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours . . . made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.” Too long, and you’d have to identify Fanny and Edmund.

In Northanger Abbey, hero Henry Tilney says, “The person, gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Wouldn’t go over with anti-intellectuals.

Later in Northanger Abbey, however, Tilney hits the mark, praising novels at a time when they were still not widely accepted as real literature: “It is only a novel . . . only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.”

Too bad those words wouldn’t fit on the bank note. They pinpoint Jane Austen’s achievement and why I love her.

But what might have gone on that note? Maybe something about money and wealth. “Everything is to be got with money” from Mansfield Park? Too crass, as is the character who speaks it, Mary Crawford. “Money can only give happiness when there is nothing else to give it” from Sense and Sensibility (Marianne Dashwood again)? Might make people think twice about spending, and that’s not the goal.

Finally, I wondered why a quotation is needed at all. Charles Darwin, whom Austen is replacing on the £10 note, has only his dates. Queen Elizabeth’s and Winston Churchill’s bills don’t have quotations. Austen hardly needs identification as a writer — at least I hope not — and her presence on the note implicitly promotes reading. What more needs to be said?

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    Lovely column. Bravo, England, for the belated salute to the incomparable Jane Austen. I wish they included quotes from all the notables featured on their banknotes. Anything to promote reading.

  • Thanks for commenting, my Jane Austen–loving friend.

  • Thank you for a wonderful roundup. I've never been able to get through one of Jane's novels yet, but you are nudging me back toward trying. Thanks again.

  • I suggest starting with Pride and Prejudice.

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