Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jane Austen and the ludic possibility of the ten pound note

Austen: good choice
If you look at who's currently on the British pound notes, you may find yourself shamefully turning to Google, as I did. Matthew Boulton and James Watt? They made steam engines. Sir John Houblon? He was the first Governor of the Bank of England. They're a pretty serious bunch. Economist Adam Smith, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, scientist Charles Darwin... They all remind us of power, empire, good works. When we use those notes, we think - that is what money is. It forms society.

So what about a little bit of playfulness on our banknotes? There has been a lot of sneering at the choice of Jane Austen for our tenners. I will leave aside, for the moment, the case for other women - there are myriad others, of course, but I intend to look at why we should celebrate Jane Austen.

Austen writes "romances", apparently. First of all, let us correct this misapprehension. The term romance has now been entirely degraded; helped by a vision of Austen as purely motivated by a kind of soppy, Barbara Cartlandish love in which all that is necessary is to get a man (and Bridget Jones hasn't really helped us in that regard), we now categorise Jane Austen in the same breath as Mills and Boon.

This is entirely, almost flabbergastingly wrong. Romance is what drives the novel. In French, novels are still called "romans." The structure of Austen's novels may have the teleology of marriage - but that is because, generically, their ancestors are the Jacobean and Regency comedies that went before her. She is using one of the deepest structures of fiction, and she makes it not a stricture, but something alive and eternal.

That's not to mention the economic and practical necessity that would beset a single woman in the Regency period. This isn't about love. It's about decisions that might mean the difference between wasting away in a garret, or having a real roof on your head.

Her novels are supremely intelligent, ironical, and well-structured; keenly observed and with an eye that deflates pretension. Her heroines live, love and sparkle, their shining sharpness cutting through the flim flam around them. They know what money is for. They know that too much of it is awful; they know that too little brings the wolf.

Paula Byrne's recent biography of Austen reassesses her life: gone is the reclusive, spinster maiden; in her place is a canny businesswoman with relatives who saw the French revolution and many wars; who knew how to negotiate her contracts; who had a deep understanding of people - and, more importantly, what motivates them. 

That is why she's a perfect choice to adorn a banknote. Not because she's a novelist that is beloved by millions. But because she understood the world, and she understood that the little scraps of paper that we pass to each other every day are heavily weighted with more than just a financial obligation. They are the difference between life and death. And she laughed at it all, a cool, clever glimmer in her eye.

So no more economists, no more scientists. Let's have a little Austen in our lives, and let's live, and love, like she did.

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