The Unfortunate Choices in the Jane Austen Ten Pound Note

The Unfortunate Choices in the Jane Austen Ten Pound Note

On 14 September 2017, a £10 banknote featuring Jane Austen entered circulation

The launch coincided with the 200th anniversary of the death of the writer, who passed away prematurely on 18 July 1817. It’s a recognition conveyed to very few individuals (and a tiny number of women). All in all, an incredible honour.

Janeites celebrated the arrival of the new note with much jubilation, and I was elated when I got hold of my first Jane Austen note. However, a second look at it left me bewildered. 

The choices of the Bank of England for the note seemed, at best, rather unfortunate – and at worst, a positive boycott of what should have been a poignant remembrance of the author. 

Here’s why:

1. The portrait

The note, as you would expect, features a portrait of the author. The slight problem is that it is based on a watercolour painted over 50 years after Jane Austen’s death by someone who had never met her. The painting was a commission by Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who wanted it to illustrate the biography he wrote of his famous aunt. 

The portrait is loosely based on Cassandra Austen’s sketch of her sister – the only verified likeness we have of Austen. However, the similarities are remarkably few. The painter took many liberties to “beautify” his subject; it was Victorian Photoshop at its best,  fuelling the idea that Austen was a gentle and harmless writer of sugary romances. It’s not something she would have appreciated.  

2. The see-through window

The see-through window at the front and back of the note features Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s resting place. It’s a pretty metallic image, and the foil is gold on the front window, silver on the back.

My objection to this choice is that Jane’s life in Winchester wasn’t particularly happy. She moved there to undergo medical treatment, but she passed away after just over two months. I find it a rather gloomy memento to put on a note supposedly celebrating Austen’s life and oeuvre

3. The heroine

In the back of the note, there’s a picture showing a young woman, said to be Elizabeth Bennet. The spirited protagonist of Pride and Prejudice is one of Austen’s most loved heroines, which makes her an excellent choice. But wait, what is Lizzie doing? Well… she is sitting down at a desk, quietly penning a letter. 

Really? Wasn’t there a better way to portray such a lively and witty character? Here are some ideas that would have worked better: showing her in a bracing countryside walk with her sister Jane; engaging in some verbal sparring with Mr Darcy; or marvelling at the grandiosity of Pemberley. Which brings me to the next point…

4. The house

The back of the note features Godmersham Park House, the estate of Austen’s brother Edward, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family. Austen visited Godmersham Park regularly, but not exactly as a guest: as a spinster sister, she was expected to “make herself useful” and help with the many nieces and nephews. 

A much better choice would have been the cottage at Chawton. After years of wandering from place to place, Austen finally found stability in Chawton, where was at her most productive. There, she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and most of Persuasion. It’s also where she most likely revised Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. I think it deserved a place in the note.

5. The quote

Jane Austen, famous for her witty remarks and acute observations about every aspect of life and death, is eminently quotable. So who had the unhappy idea to feature the famously insincere “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading” quote on the £10 note?

Does anybody really think that Austen would have liked one of her Mean Girls to have that honour?

Don’t get me wrong. Caroline Bingley is one of my favourite Austen characters. Her hypocrisy, selfishness and rudeness towards Elizabeth only make her fate more delicious. I like her so much that I even gave her a second chance in Miss Price’s Decision

Nevertheless, having this quote on the Jane Austen note makes no sense. 

6. The amount

Ten is a nice, round number, but in the context of Jane Austen’s life, it has bittersweet connotations. £10 is exactly the sum paid by publisher Crosby & Co in 1803 for Austen’s Susan, thought to be an early version of Northanger Abbey. Happy days!

The problem, of course, is that the manuscript remained unpublished. In the years that followed the sale, Jane experienced varying degrees of hope, disappointment and anxiety over the manuscript until she bought it back 13 years later. Perhaps £10 wasn’t the most appropriate note amount for Austen, considering what we know about her life.    

7. The signature

Jane Austen was a prolific letter writer. Even after Cassandra’s heavy editing, we still have dozens of her letters, many of which feature her famous signature. However, out of all the possibilities available, guess which one the Bank of England chose for the note? 

Yes, the signature that Austen stamped on her will.

Something tells me that there are no Janeites in the ranks of the Bank of England.

In the meantime, I rest my case….

 

What are your thoughts on the above? Have you managed to get hold of a £10 note featuring Jane Austen? 

 

 

20 Responses to The Unfortunate Choices in the Jane Austen Ten Pound Note

  1. Obviously, Miss Oblivious here didn’t notice any of that! I must check again.
    I had seen a comment about the quote before and personally I think that Caroline Bingley doesn’t deserve to be honoured in this way! 🙂
    Thank you for sharing this Eliza.

  2. Thank you for interesting post. My son knows about my love of P&P and brought me a new 10 pound note when he went to London. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you for sharing this really interesting post, you had some really good points and I found it interesting to read.

    Hope you are doing well and staying safe!

  4. I agree with you on these points and Gianna sums it up perfectly. I framed my note. I live in Ireland but my daughter now lives in London and she sent me one as soon as it was released. I was so thrilled to have it I didn’t examine it in detail at all.

    • I was so excited when the note was issued that I didn’t look at it properly either!
      None of this occurred to me until quite recently. It was after reading a recent Austen biography that the sum paid for “Susan” stuck in my head. That’s when I started to look at the note with different eyes. It’s funny how sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of us.

  5. You just sent me running to find the note we brought back from our last trip to the UK. I have to admit, I was so thrilled at the idea that I never really considered the details.
    I’m not sure I agree completely. The portrait, for example, is the one that people most immediately recoginse, and the tower of the cathedral is a simple but attractive image that fits nicely in the space. Serious question here (it will sound snarky but it’s not intended that way) – what would you have suggested instead?
    And yes, I’ve always found it a sad irony that the most delicious quotations often come from the antagonists and not the heroes!

    • I see your point about the portrait, but it’s a particular peeve of mine. If you look at Cassandra’s drawing, you’ll notice how different the Victorian drawing is from the original sketch. I also resent the fact that the sweetness of the image has contributed to Austen’s novels being seen as “merely romantic”, when they are much more than that.

      With regards to the Winchester cathedral, how about replacing it with the famous Austen cameo/silhouette? It’s equally simple and would fit the space nicely. As for the quotes, yes yes yes! Austen baddies always get the best ones.

  6. I would love to see what committee [of one probably] made the decisions for this bank note. I won a bill ages ago in a drawing and need to look at it more closely. I’m in the US so would not normally see this in circulation. You have made very good points. Thanks for sharing this with us. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

  7. No I haven’t gotten it seem one but I am in the U.S so that may be why!lol But it would be interesting to see one, it does sound like they could have done better!

    • The Bank of England website does have some good images that should give you an idea. It’s a polymer note – so plastic, not paper – hence the see-through window. But yes, they could have done better!

  8. Thank you for this post. I have never stopped to check the note in such detail but I am going to do it now. It is a pity that something that is actually relevant for women has not been discussed with people who actually know about her (Chawton, JA centre,e tc.)

  9. I agree with your comments, Eliza. It made me think of Hollywood movies where they change the story rather than keep the one from the book. In this case, each of the elements make me raise an eyebrow at their choices. They don’t seem to be wanting to please those who love Austen’s books and writing. So who are they trying to please?

    • Your question is spot on. I suspect it was a box-ticking exercise, something along the lines of “Jane Austen seems popular, and it will help our male/female ratio on the notes.” Whoever managed the project certainly doesn’t seem to have given it much thought.

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