LONDON – Jane Austen will become the new face on England’s 10-pound notes — in an attempt to add a little pride and fight the prejudice against women on the country’s currency.
The Bank of England chose the chronicler of 18th century English country life as the new face of the note, bowing to critics who complained that the venerable institution was ignoring women on their currency.
“Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes,” the bank’s new governor Mark Carney said Wednesday in a statement.
“Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognized as one of the greatest writers in English literature.”
Carney elevated the creator of Mr. Darcy to the 10-pound (about $15) note within weeks of his taking over the helm of the UK’s central bank.
The controversy began earlier this year when the bank announced it would replace the 19th-century social reformer Elizabeth Fry with wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the five-pound note. Though Churchill is still revered for his World War II leadership, the change led to protests because no other woman — besides Queen Elizabeth II — would be represented on Britain’s currency.
Though few quibble with the hard work the monarch has done for Britain, women’s rights advocates fiercely argued that counting the head of state among the luminaries sent the wrong message to young women. This, they said, suggested that the only way for women to get ahead was to be born into the right family.
Tens of thousands signed a petition. Lawmakers asked for reflection. Some argued that equality laws might be violated.
The outgoing governor, Mervyn King, was forced to reassure lawmakers in one of his final public appearances that their concerns were unfounded and that Austen was quietly waiting in the wings for her chance to appear.
Austen, whose novels include “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility,” is one of Britain’s best-loved authors. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of “Pride and Prejudice,” which was celebrated across the country with costume parties and other events.
The Austen note will be issued within a year of the Churchill note, which is targeted for release during 2016. The present face of the 10-pound note, Charles Darwin, will become extinct.
The recognition can’t help but be sweet for the legion of fans devoted to an author whose observations on money and fortune remain biting two centuries after they were first published. This, after all, is the author who noted in Mansfield Park that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”
Rebecca Smith, a teaching fellow in English and creative writing at the University of Southampton, believes Austen would appreciate the recognition — even though she kept a very private profile as a novelist.
“I do think she would have been amused or even delighted to know that she would appear on a bank note 200 years after her novels were published,” Smith said in an email.
“We know from her letters that she took great pleasure in finally having an income and money of her own.”
Smith noted that without her writing, Austen would have been financially dependent on her family. In a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, on Nov. 30, 1814, Austen said that while she appreciated the praise the novels were getting, she also liked earning money, too.
“People are more ready to borrow and praise than to buy, which I cannot wonder at; but though I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls ‘pewter’, too,” Austen wrote.
However, rather than one of her observations on money on the currency, the bank inexplicably chose the quote “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” from “Pride and Prejudice.” It is not clear whether the bank considered, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The portrait used will be based on one commissioned by James Edward Austen Leigh, Austen’s nephew, in 1870. This image was adapted from an original sketch by Austen’s sister Cassandra, the bank said.
British bank notes have celebrated a range of historical figures, including William Shakespeare, economist Adam Smith and James Watt, the engineer who improved the steam engine. But few women have been included in the pantheon. Aside from the monarch and Fry only one other woman — Florence Nightingale — has appeared on the bills since historical figures were introduced in 1970.
Jane Austen will be in good company.