Our Executive Director, Gillian Dow was at Winchester Cathedral today for the official unveiling of the new £10, featuring Jane Austen’s image. Read the speech she gave, commemorating Jane Austen’s enduring legacy.
History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you? […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, (1818)
So speaks Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in December 1817. The great Jane Austen – whose death we commemorate today, 200 years after the event – has well and truly written herself into history. We might even say that she has now reached peak celebrity. The forthcoming circulation of this new ten pound note featuring her image by the Bank of England is one more manifestation of her popular appeal. Through this special tribute, we see a celebration of her achievements, and recognition of her total mastery of her chosen field – fiction. Austen left us six published novels, two unfinished novels, and wild and exuberant juvenilia. She left us fragments setting out a satirical ‘plan of a novel’, and recording the opinions of friends, family and neighbours on her novels Emma and Mansfield Park. And she left letters; most of those that still survive were to her beloved older sister Cassandra.
Winston Churchill, Jane Austen’s companion on the Bank of England’s five pound note, read Pride and Prejudice during the second world war. Churchill famously said of the characters in Austen’s novels that they led ‘quiet lives’. Maria Edgeworth – Austen’s great contemporary, also a writer of fiction, said of Emma ‘there’s no story in it’. Those of us who know and love Austen’s fiction know there’s as much meaning in one character’s extravagant dash to London for a haircut as there is in another character’s frivolous choice of colour of ribbons (pink, because they are the doctor’s favourite…) But it is to misread Jane Austen to read her as mistress of the unstated, the domestic, the seemingly trivial. For she tackled topics of universal and continuing importance, none more so than money and the economic realities of late-Georgian and Regency-Period life.
‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony’, Jane Austen wrote to her then unmarried niece Fanny Knight in 1814. And her fiction dwells on the precarious nature of the young, unmarried, woman’s existence. Who can forget the plight of the Dashwood family, left without a substantial inheritance on the death of their father, while his estate passes to the son from his first marriage. The masterful opening two chapters of Austen’s first-published novel Sense and Sensibility moves from a ‘liberal and handsome’ gift of three thousand pounds for the Dashwood sisters to a vague intention of sending ‘fish and game when in season’: harking back to an agrarian economy that England has long left behind. It’s a supremely comic passage, principally worked out in a dialogue between secondary characters, but the salient point is clear: without money, the future of Elinor, Marianne and Margaret Dashwood is bleak. Austen returns to the plight of the impoverished woman again and again: in her fourth published novel, Emma, in which Miss Bates is a comic character, and a figure of fun for the eponymous heroine, Emma herself. But how chilling is Mr Knightley’s remonstrance of Emma when she publicly mocks Miss Bates during the Box Hill picnic: ‘She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!’ Jane Austen knows the value of money; she knows exactly what it means for her heroines when her heroes have £10,000 a year – and when they have less!
Some of the most joyful passages in Austen’s fiction relate to exuberant and reckless spending. Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice spends a fortune on a bonnet – and an ugly one at that – and although we are not quite meant to approve, we recognise the youthful temptation. And the Beautiful Cassandra – from a tale written in Austen’s youth – has a glorious day of shopping, when she visits a Pastry-cook’s, ‘where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away’. When Austen writes of a visit to rich Brother Edward’s home at Godmersham Park in Kent, it is the luxury of her stay that she gleefully anticipates: “I shall eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.”
It was in some part because of her desire to be above vulgar economy that Austen celebrated the publication of her novels. A letter from 1813 – shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice – marks her jubilance having written herself, through her first two novels, ‘into 250 pounds, which only makes me long for more’. The next year, when Mansfield Park is selling less well than she might have hoped, she writes: ‘Although I like praise as well as anyone, I like what Edward calls Pewter too’. Her dealings with her second publisher John Murray mark her out as a shrewd business woman: Murray, she writes, is ‘a Rogue, but a Civil one’; she is an author who knows her own worth.
Much has been said and written about Jane Austen’s life in the southern counties of England, and of her focus on this area in her fiction, and Winchester and Hampshire are of course quite right to claim her as their own this year. But much less has been said and written about Austen’s enjoyment of vicarious travel. And yet clearly she knew a great deal of the world through her reading, and through the travels and exploits of her brothers: Clergyman James, himself an author and editor; Lucky Edward, who became Edward Knight, inherited great wealth, and went on a Grand Tour of Europe; Banker Henry – what a Henry! – who acted as her informal agent in London; Rear Admiral Charles – one of two seafaring brothers. ‘My dearest Frank’, later Sir Francis William Austen, Admiral of the Fleet, she writes to from her home in the village of Chawton in July 1813:
‘It must be a real enjoyment to you, since you are obliged to leave England, to be where you are, seeing something of a new Country, & one that has been so distinguished as Sweden’.
Jane Austen clearly has no idea that her second novel Pride and Prejudice – her ‘darling child’ – just like her brother Frank, had just left England and was shortly to appear in a new country in the first French translation, Orgueil et Prejugés, published in the very same year as the original.
200 years after her death, Jane Austen has a textual presence across the Globe. But there is something wonderful, I think, in imagining the further places she will go, printed on the ten pound note. I like to think of her in a smart leather wallet on a business trip to Washington DC; tucked inside a handbag en route to the beach in Mauritius; or indeed on a shopping trip to London – an activity that we know Austen enjoyed greatly. But most of all, I like to think of all the people who will look at this new ten pound note and say ‘Jane Austen. I’ve always meant to read her’. The people who will then return to the texts, to those timeless works of art that led us here in the first place. She wrote herself into comparatively little money in life; she has written herself onto millions of pounds in death. England’s Jane; the World’s Jane; the ten pound note Jane – I feel certain she would relish the honour.