When the Bank of England announced earlier this year that it would replace Elizabeth Fry, 19th century social reformer, with Winston Churchill on the 5-pound note, it got an earful from critics. Fry was the only woman represented on British currency, apart from the Queen. Critics led a campaign imploring the Bank to reverse its decision and to instead replace Fry with another prominent British woman. The petitioners argued that while Queen Elizabeth’s face graces the front of every banknote, the monarch hardly represents the women of England—she’s on the currency because of her bloodline, not her merits. Apart from the Queen and Fry, Florence Nightingale is the only other woman whose face has appeared on a British banknote. (Nightingale was featured on the 10-pound note from 1975 until 1992).
Well, the campaign kind of worked! While Churchill is still a go for the 5-pound note, the bank announced earlier today that Jane Austen will be replacing Charles Darwin on the 10-pound banknote, effective in 2017.
Campaigners for the Fry slot, who went as far as to threaten to sue the Bank for failing to take the country’s 2010 Equality Act into account when choosing a face, are overjoyed. Not only have they secured a place for the novelist in the currency, the Bank of England has agreed to review the process through which a prominent figure is granted this honor.
But not everyone is convinced that Austen is the right choice. Susie Boniface argues in the Mirror that England has produced far worthier women like mathematician Ada Lovelace or Margaret Thatcher, who deserve recognition more than the 18th century novelist, because, in Boniface’s words, while Austen “wrote perfectly good books,” she “didn’t change the world.” Boniface also chides the novelist for her reliance on the marriage plot.
Boniface and English Professor John Mullan of the University College, London debated the issue in the Guardian last month, when Mullan rightly noted that it’s hard to enter into a discussion on whether or not Austen is the best choice to represent women in British currency without trying to compare apples to oranges, scientists to social activists. Even Boniface admits that the issue isn’t who should represent British women, but that women are expected to identify with one single “representative” at all. It’s a heavy burden for Austen, just as it would be for Thatcher.
The Bank of England announced that the bill will include a portrait of Austen adapted from a sketch by her sister Cassandra, and a quote from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” And with that line from the insufferable Miss Bingley Austen will join the ranks of Shakespeare and Dickens. They should have gone with: “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”