Jane Austen Wins a Place on UK Currency - HISTORY

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Since Britain’s central bank began printing historical figures on the flip side of its currency in 1970, the vast majority of those featured have been men, including authors William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, economist Adam Smith and James Watt, considered the inventor of the modern steam engine. The maverick nurse Florence Nightingale appeared on the 10-pound note in the mid-1970s, but bank notes featuring her had gone out of issue by the 1990s.

Last April, the Bank of England sparked outrage among equality advocates when it announced that it would be putting Winston Churchill on the back of the five-pound note, replacing the social reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845). Fry, a Quaker, worked tirelessly to improve conditions for women in British prisons, and became a well-known personality in Britain by the 1820s, meeting several times with Queen Victoria.

After hearing that Churchill would be replacing Fry, women’s rights advocates pointed out that limiting female representation on the currency sends a damaging message to girls and young women–that the only way they can have an impact is by being born into the right family (like Her Majesty the Queen) rather than for anything they achieve themselves. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition to that effect, inspiring British lawmakers to ask the bank to reflect on its decision. In response to such public pressure, outgoing governor Mervyn King alluded to Austen’s forthcoming appearance on the notes in one of his final public appearances on the bank’s behalf, and his successor Carney made it official yesterday in his first press conference since taking office on July 1.

Speaking at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, a 17th-century house where the author wrote some of her best-known novels, Carney declared that “[Austen’s] novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognized as one of the greatest writers in English literature. As Austen joins Adam Smith, Boulton and Watt, and in future, Churchill, our notes will celebrate a diverse range of individuals who have contributed in a wide range of fields.” The Austen 10-pound notes will likely enter circulation within a year of the Churchill 5-pounders, currently slated for issue in 2016. They will feature a portrait of the author based on one commissioned by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh, which was in turn adapted from an original sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra. The portrait will appear alongside a quotation from “Pride and Prejudice”: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

The choice of Austen to put on Britain’s currency seems appropriate, as the much-loved novelist showed a keen interest in the themes of money and financial stability in her work. In “Mansfield Park,” she wrote that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of,” and Austen historians point out that the author took great pride in having earned an income of her own from her books.

It’s a big year for Austen fans, as 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of “Pride and Prejudice,” her most beloved novel, and the subject of numerous TV and film adaptations. Austenophiles around the world have been celebrating the occasion with costume balls, 24-hour read-a-thons, essay contests, lectures, screenings and other special events. The British postal service, the Royal Mail, beat the Bank of England to the punch by issuing a commemorative line of Austen-related stamps earlier this year, and Chawton and other related destinations are enjoying a boom in tourism.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the bank’s decision highlights the fact that a woman hasn’t been seen on U.S. bank notes in more than a century. In the late 1800s, Martha Washington was featured on several issues of the $1 Silver Certificate. The nation’s first first lady wasn’t the first to appear on its currency, however: Jamestown’s most famous Native American ally, Pocahontas, appeared on a $20 bank note as early as the 1860s. Images of Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea have both graced the $1 coin more recently, but the coins never caught on in popularity, largely because their design and size make them too similar to the ubiquitous quarter.

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