New York Review of Books
September 28, 2017
On July 18, the Bank of England marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death by officially unveiling a new £10 note in her honor, the second in a series designed to replace paper currency with a more rugged polymer. It would be nice to imagine that someone at the bank had been reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and thought this an appropriate way of acknowledging the woman who figures in it as one of our most clear-sighted guides to the origins of current economic arrangements: one who grasped, in Piketty’s words, “the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women…with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” But Austen’s shrewdness about money seems to have been far less on anyone’s mind than a desire to rectify the absence of women other than the queen on British currency. (Churchill had pushed prison reformer Elizabeth Fry off the £5 note in 2013.)
It’s more than a little ironic, then, that what appears on the new £10 bill is not an authentic image of Austen but a prettified, Victorian version first circulated by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, as a frontispiece for his 1870 Memoir of his aunt. Based on a sketch of Austen by her sister Cassandra that is often said to be the only surviving portrait of the novelist—about this too there is controversy—the Memoir’s version erases the downward-drooping lines around the eyes and mouth, plumps the cheeks, and softens the compressed lips into the hint of a smile, thus effectively airbrushing the sharp, rather dour original. Even the ruffles at the cheek and neck contribute to the effect, as does the cropping of the crossed arms that helped to give Cassandra’s portrait its faint air of defiance.
Austen’s Victorian relatives were notoriously anxious lest she appear not genteel enough for contemporary tastes, and the bank’s designers have duly obliged them by backgrounding her image with one of Godmersham Park, the landed estate owned by the wealthy relatives who had adopted one of her brothers when he was an adolescent. Like the other great houses Austen visited, this was a place at which she always remained something of an outsider—a point rightly emphasized in Lucy Worsley’s new biography of the novelist, Jane Austen at Home. To compound the offense, the bank has reproduced on the £10 bill an anodyne quotation from Pride and Prejudice (1813)—“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”—that is actually spoken by one of the novel’s snobs, Caroline Bingley, as she yawns and flings aside a book picked up only because it’s the second volume of one Darcy has chosen. Miss Bingley, in fact, has been “quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own.”