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Jane Austen on banknotes – the right person for the wrong reason

26 July 2013

4:34 PM

26 July 2013

4:34 PM

So the huge online campaign and (rather strange) legal action won in the end: Jane Austen is to appear on the new £10 note. Most people would agree that she is in the top division of English authors, so it’s a shame that, rather than being celebrated as a novelist, she has now been chosen as a woman, rather less of an accomplishment.

As a consequence people will mentally devalue her, because the human mind always subconsciously adjusts to tokenism in the same way it adjusts to inflation. (And it is the same reason that Buy British campaigns have never worked, sending as they do the message that the products are lousy.)

Banknotes say a lot about a nation-state, and countries that cannot agree on individuals to adorn them tend to be societies potentially in fracture (Lebanon, the Eurozone etc). The beautiful Series D banknotes of my youth, featuring Newton, Wellington, Nightingale, Shakespeare and Wren, suggested a country with a strong idea of itself.


So the Series F marks the intrusion of identity politics into yet another area of public life, and there are also campaigns to include Mary Seacole and Alan Turing in future. Turing made a great contribution to computers, but the motivation for his elevation to public greatness is, I suspect, his status as a martyr of sexuality (after all, most people aged 16-30 know rather more about LGBT rights than the intricacies of early computers).

The case for Seacole is bizarre, and also fairly insulting to her contemporary Florence Nightingale, a gigantic figure in the development of statistics who changed the face of medicine, and warfare (before her most soldiers died of disease, after her from weapons – that’s progress for you). Seacole was a remarkable character; Nightingale changed history. Having the former on the banknotes would diminish the latter’s greatness in people’s minds.

But that’s what tokenism does. Surely it’s reasonable to say that in a just world there will be far more men than women on banknotes for the same reason that, as Camille Paglia said, there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper. Yet as the public discourse on sexual equality is still so gripped by the gender feminist belief in equality of outcomes, the focus seems to be on representation rather than achievement, which lowers the value of great women like Nightingale.

So here’s to Jane Austen — as a novelist, not a woman.


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