For all the hand wringing over the coming extinction of the printed book, there’s one form of printed paper that looks unlikely to go out of style any time soon: The banknote.
That’s one piece of print that everyone sees and no one disregards. Hence perhaps the public furor and media circus over the Bank of England’s decision to withdraw a banknote design that incorporated one of the few female Britons it had ever deigned to honor, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and over the move to allay public anger by rolling out a new design for the £10 banknote featuring Jane Austen instead, with a quotation that reads: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
For a country with such a rich heritage of writers, the United Kingdom often does a lousy job of honoring and memorializing them. Only two writers have appeared on UK banknotes: William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
Ditto its great women Britons: Apart from Fry, Florence Nightingale is the only other non-royal woman to have graced a Bank of England banknote. And when those two categories combine in great female British writers, the situation can get dismal.
But despite the breathless commentary portraying the Bank of England’s decision as a victory for fourth wave feminism, I think the reverse is true. The whole farce shows how retarded the situation in England really is.
Some observers reckoned that the Bank of England was conspicuously playing it safe–in its choice of writer, and of quotation. Other licensed issuing banks in the UK have done a far better job of balancing their sex ratios. Clydesdale Bank, for example, licensed to issue notes in Scotland, has printed note designs incorporating Scottish doctor and feminist Elsie Inglis, and Scottish missionary and women’s rights activist Mary Slessor.
And if the Bank of England had to settle on a woman writer to send a real message of female empowerment, surely there are far better writers to choose than Jane Austen, who gave us, as probably the single best-known opening sentence by any English-language woman writer: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
What about Mary Wollstonecraft, with a design commemorating the writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? Or her daughter Mary Shelley? Or Emily Brontë? Or even Virginia Woolf? Surely any of these would have been far more appropriate? And the Bank of England seems far from gutsy enough to commemorate Emily Davison or Emmeline Pankhurst.
The Bank of England’s final decision also misfired as a defense of reading and literacy. “Has the Bank of England governor actually read Pride and Prejudice?” asked John Mullan in The Guardian, pointing out that the quotation adorning the new design was taken from the mouth of Caroline Bingley, one of the least cultured and worst-read characters in the book. Obviously that irony passed the Bank of England by.
Then on second thoughts, perhaps it’s not so inappropriate after all. Perhaps, for a country so backward in its education, its literacy, and its regard for writing and culture, let alone its levels of gender neutrality, the new Jane Austen banknote is the perfect symbol. Personally, I plan to avoid having to use it for the foreseeable future.