Today, after a three-month campaign against the removal of historical women from English banknotes, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, announced that Jane Austen will be the face of the new ten-pound note. What comes into your head when you think of the author? Perhaps it’s the phrase “smouldering hero in tight britches”? Or you might think of a comforting world where “everyone knew their place”? Maybe you agree that she was “the 19th century version of Barbara Cartland”. Given the ubiquity of costume dramas, from which most people get their Austen fix, you would be forgiven for any of these reactions. Jane Austen has become a byword for good girls who wait quietly in the wings until they get their just reward – the reward, of course, being Colin Firth in a wet shirt.
You would be forgiven, but you would be wrong. Or if “wrong” is too dogmatic a term in this world where relativity rules, you would be seriously undermining the genius of a woman who John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, has called “the greatest English writer apart from Shakespeare.” Austen’s witty, clever novels contain a vivid awareness of the myriad implications of simple words; if you’re ever strapped for an intellectual exercise on a Sunday afternoon, trace the use of the word “angel” throughout her writing. As Mary Wollstonecraft asked, “Why are girls…told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women?”. Lydia’s pronouncement in Pride & Prejudice that “there is but one man I love, and he is an angel” will never seem the same again.
But Austen wasn’t just a wordsmith – and I believe that those who insist that “George Eliot’s books provoked more social change” or that “Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist philosophy is more relevant to modern society” do little more than buy into sexist assumptions about the “seriousness” or otherwise of books that focus on female experience. Austen’s writing is consistently and acutely aware of the constricted lives women led in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; her focus on the marriage market – and market is absolutely the way she portrayed it – is profoundly satirical and critical. There is no denying that she didn’t overtly write about the Napoleonic Wars – but to therefore judge her books as remiss in some way is to value the male over the female experience; and how would that fit in with Wollstonecraft?
In fact, Austen’s own beliefs are abundantly clear. They’re manifested in Mr Collins’s marriage proposal in Pride & Prejudice – itself a lampooning of society’s still prevalent conviction that, from a woman’s lips, no means yes. They lie in her repeated hints that history is written by and about men: defending women from the charge of “fickleness” in Persuasion, Anne Elliot counters that “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story…the pen has been in their hands”. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland rubbishes “very tiresome” history with “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”. But above all, they’re manifested in her evocation of gender as a social performance, nearly 200 years before Judith Butler.
Austen most powerfully explores performativity through the trope of the fallen woman. A stock character of eighteenth-century literature, the fallen woman put the contemporary equivalent of Daily Mail journalists in a quandary. On the one hand, they liked the shameless hussy’s inevitably grisly end; on the other, as the author of the conduct book Ladies Calling put it, ”Those amorous Passions…are apt to insinuate themselves into their unwary Readers, and by an unhappy inversion, a copy shall produce an Original.” By readers, he meant women – and this was obviously unacceptable.
While his conclusion that women must never be allowed to read anything more racy than his own conduct book – a snip at 1d – may be laughable, his underlying premise, that society and culture are reciprocal, is backed up by compelling behavioural research into role models. Women give better speeches and speak for longer after being shown pictures of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel; female students are more likely to choose traditionally “male” subjects in a faculty with female lecturers; female students who interact with a woman presented as ‘highly competent’ in maths just before taking a maths test outperform the men in their group – conversely, if they are simply reminded of their gender before the test, female students achieve low scores. Clearly, women are not sprung from the ground fully-formed like Hobbes’s mushrooms, but instead are the product of an environment that leaves them with little confidence in their own abilities.
When we speak of the impact of role models on women, we must be careful to align ourselves with Austen, rather than with Ladies Calling. Austen’s work displays an acute awareness of the impact of cultural norms. Her repeated return to the fallen woman – either hyperbolising her silence and vilification, or subverting her fall – speaks to her concern that women might believe, and even emulate the myth. But she also dismisses the patronising assertion that only impressionable women are shaped by their culture, through absurd characters such as Sir Edward Denham in Sanditon, who believes himself to be the second coming of Lord Byron – and believes that all women are ripe for the fall.
Such portrayals remind us of the dangers of airbrushing women out of history. Women need diverse and inspirational role models – and it doesn’t harm men to be reminded that women aren’t one-stop ravishment shops. Austen’s acute awareness and sharp delivery of these facts makes her the perfect end to the campaign to Keep Women on Banknotes.
Caroline Criado Perez is the co-founder of The Women’s Room, a media database of female experts and commentators. She kickstarted the ‘Keep Women on Banknotes’ campaign which led to today’s BoE announcement. Follow her on Twitter @ccriadoperez or @thewomensroomuk
Image: Creative Commons, Synwell on Flickr
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