Its been a long time, baby, to quote the Blessed Fat Boy Slim, but here we are, once again gracing the book-strewn halls of Austenonly. Sufficiently recovered to be able to access my computer once more, I thought it was about time we made our re-acquaintance. I hope you have been well and happy in my absence. Many, many Jane Austen-related news items have come and gone while I’ve been recuperating, so, if you don’t mind, over the next few posts, I’m going to take a look at some of them.
The first news item of great note and import was that an image of Jane Austen was to be featured on a new Bank of England banknote.
The date for issue of the note is not too far in the future, 2017, fittingly the year of the 200th anniversary of her death.
Here is a video featuring Chris Salmon, the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England explaining why she was chosen:
I was very surprised by the absolute torrent of misogyny that this announcement generated. Campaigners who had lobbied for a female image to be included on a Bank of England banknote on Twitter were met with a series of unbelievably violent, personally abusive attacks. What would Jane have said? Something cutting no doubt.
The prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry was, amazingly, the only woman to be featured thus far, on our banknotes, apart from The Queen, who, of course, always appears on our currency. It is time for more women to be celebrated in this way, IMHO. I am therefore highly delighted that Jane Austen, one of our greatest authors ( I refuse to qualify her in any way as merely a “woman” writer, and all that implies ) is to be commemorated in this way.
The design elements of the banknote, in general, make sense, and include an adaptation of an illustration from a 1976 edition of Pride and Prejudice, shown below from my copy, of Elizabeth Bennet re-reading her sister, Jane’s letters.
The original illustration was by Isabel Bishop, the American illustrator.
However, certain aspects of the design do nag at me a little. And very notably at others who have been most vociferous in their opposition. The first and most noisy debate surrounds the image of Jane Austen on the banknote. Of course, the use of any of the images purporting to be Jane is problematical because we really do not have a good, clear and authenticated portrait of her which was taken in her lifetime. The watercolour image owned by the National Portrait Gallery and painted by Cassandra Austen, which is the only authenticated image we have, was obviously thought to be inappropriate, and, indeed, it might be that it was difficult to render it as an engraved image. This is a pity as I rather prefer this image, with all it faults, to any other. The Bank has decided, instead, to use the Lizar’s engraving of James Andrew’s watercolour portrait of Jane, which was commissioned by Edward Austen-Leigh to be included in the famous memoir he wrote of his aunt and which was published in 1870.
This Victorian image of Jane exercises some people greatly. I don’t mind it, but then I don’t read into it the message that it makes Jane Austen look like a passive, sanitized doll figure. But others take a very different view of it. Look at this account of a debate on last Thursday morning’s Today programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Click this link to to read about it all. Dr Paula Byrne clearly detests this portrait and hated the fact it was chosen to adorn the banknote. Elizabeth Proudman of the Jane Austen Society took a contrary view. Their conversation, which became quite heated, certainly enlivened my breakfast on Thursday morning.
My big gripe however, is with the decision to include an engraving of Jane Austen’s rich brother, Edward Knight’s home in Kent, Godmersham Park. This element is obviously based on the Halsead engraving of 1797 ( my copy is shown below):
and I truly do appreciate that having an engraving of a property which has links to Jane Austen to copy must be a boon for the designers of the banknote. But, for me, it sends all the wrong signals to the general pubic. Jane Austen did not live in such splendour. She was allowed only ever to visit Godmersham. All her life she lived under the protection and on the charity of others: first, her parents and then, after her father’s death in 1805, her brothers. Apart from the income she received from her books in the last years of her life, she had no personal income at all. She lived in much, much less exalted places than her brother’s grand home. Using the Godmersham image seems to reinforce, quite wrongly, the impression some seem to have that she lived in the midst of a very privileged sphere and wrote only about the rich, forgetting that she could and did write about poverty, and, indeed from 1805 onwards lived a precarious life financially. Her depiction of the poor in Emma and moreover the ghastly details of the squalid home and lifestyle of the Price family in Portsmouth in Mansfield Park are details that only someone who had experience of this type of life could have described. Using this rather grand image blurs her real achievement of writing these incomparable novels in the face of some adversity, and reinforces the Quality Street, saccharine view some have of Dear Aunt Jane and her works, in my humble opinion. I would far rather have seen am image of Chawton Cottage. This was a humble dwelling, and moreover one which Jane didn’t ever own, but despite all this, was the safe haven which became the cradle for her creativity.
I am also disappointed in the choice of quotation. The Bank of England has chosen a quote from Pride and Prejudice but one which is uttered by Miss Bingley (of all people!) when she is trying so very desperately to attract Darcy’s attention:
Which sounds great, until you read it in context: here is the expanded quote from Chapter 11:
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. 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 anything 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…
I would much rather have preferred the Bank to have used this quote, from a letter Jane Austen wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight, on the 13th March 1817.
Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor…
Which is something I think, may still hold true today, but in any event, using it would have brought into focus Jane Austen’s own situation ( and one that she wrote about so eloquently when depicting poor Miss Bates in Emma.) It may have been too controversial a choice, but would, in my view, have been a better reflection of Jane Austen’s own very clear-eyed assessment of the financial worth of her characters and the role money ( or the lack of it) played in her life.
However, I am still rather pleased she will be honoured and look forward to the day my ATM delivers it to me.
To turn to a slightly different topic, the images we have of Jane Austen may again come under some scrutiny for the water-colour made by James Andrews, which was based on Cassandra Austen’s sketch and approved by those who knew her ( with, it must be admitted, a few reservations) is to be sold at auction at Sothebys in the near future.
Go here to The Guardian site to read all about it. I will, of course, keep an eye on developments. I wonder who will purchase it? The National Portrait Gallery seems the obvious choice, but I daresay the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton would treasure it. But may they have exhausted potential donors goodwill after the recent purchase of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring …? What a fascinating situation, and certainly one to watch. Which brings me rather conveniently to the subject of my next post: that ring and Kelly Clarkson ;)