David Butterfield

Would Jane Austen be amused or bemused by her £10 note quotation?

Would Jane Austen be amused or bemused by her £10 note quotation?
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So, the new tenner has been unveiled today. Two centuries after her death, Jane Austen replaces Charles Darwin, who has enjoyed a 25-year sojourn with his hummingbirds. And yet it feels like this new note has been in the air for a while, though obscured by the hazy fug of controversy.

First there was the (largely vegan) stew about animal tallow remaining part of the production process. All protests about what we’re doing with the natural world are worth hearing, so long as they are proportional. Quite what percentage of society occupies the intersection of the Venn diagram where strict boycotters of plastic bags, soap and cosmetics overlap with those who shun vehicular transport (tyres), candles and latex, I’m not sure. But we can conclude that their complaint – which concerns less than 0.0001 grams of tallow per note – has been duly aired, and the new note is theirs to boycott.

Second, there was the allegation that Jane Austen’s portrait on the notes had been ‘dolled up’ – or, more precisely, western-male-stereotype-of-beautified. This one has done the rounds too.

All of this flak is predictable enough. For the Bank of England has set about replacing our understated currency with these strange, toy-town notes that look like they’ve been fashioned for the bespoke Monopoly set of a Kyrgyz warlord. Yes, this is the bright new age in which our cash is not poor old paper (so second millennium) but durable, versatile polymer. While it may be more difficult than ever to spend it in physical form, it can effortlessly serve as a wipe-down coaster, an edgy pocket square, or – with some investment of time and money – the hull of a trans-Atlantic skiff.

But let this all be by the by. The strangest thing about the new tenner is the quotation that runs along the bottom of it: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ Now, I’m as shocked as the next man that our currency entertains that rabble-rouser of the punctuation crowd, the exclamation mark. But what’s really odd is where this quotation comes from. It’s not, as most will assume, Austen’s puff for some little-known Georgian literacy drive. Instead, it’s the try-hard expostulation of the nouveau-riche Caroline Bingley, a small but unpleasant player in Pride and Prejudice (1813). At the time she is angling for the approval of Fitzwilliam Darcy, himself buried in a book. Bingley is seeking to impress the beau with her literary fervour but she hasn’t got the head or heart for it. In fact, her very speech is preceded by a ‘great yawn’. And she continues in a similarly vapid vein:

‘How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’

Austen pricks the conceit quickly enough:

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement.

This, then, satirises a woman who not only fails to read a book for a few minutes but even disbelieves her pretentious announcements. Bingley is thinking not of literature but of what money can buy – like the super-wealthy who now commission agents to plaster their walls with books purely for decorative value. Her speech is just a fatuous cento of chat-up lines, the sort of proper talk she supposes Mr Darcy would admire.

Of course, almost anyone holding the note won’t recall this minor moment in the novel, and will instead take the glib assertion as Austen’s own. It would only be a little more absurd to attribute to Thomas Hardy, ‘I hate French books’, to Charles Dodgson, ‘shun the frumious Bandersnatch’, or – and I grant that this would be a controversial note – to Hilary Mantel, ‘take your cock out and put it on the table’.

I do worry about what’s going on here. Has a researcher Googled ‘Austen reading’ and high-fived the Microsoft Word Paperclip on finding what seems the perfect quotation? Or has someone who knows their books, and indeed their Austen, created a deep, slow-burning campaign to get us exploring the context through further reading? Given that this quotation will be printed on some 300 million notes for more than a decade, it would be good to know.

All of this seems a shame, as the issues raised by Miss Bingley’s actual words do matter. Reading is not just one of the fundamental life-skills but also one of life’s great pleasures. This is increasingly forgotten, despite the best efforts of schools. If we can talk of ‘National Read A Book Day’ (6 Sep.) as an annual event, we all clearly need to be doing more.

Well, these issues are lost in the shallow comment of the original. And yet it remains oddly prescient. The note has a quotation that reflects a real lack of interest in reading – either of the researcher who dug it up without reading the page, or of the character who has little time for the hard toil of reading. Both, in different ways, are more interested in money, and so are most people. (Even the new Austen two-pound coin, also revealed today, bears a motto from Northanger Abbey, ‘there is no doing without money’.)

Bingley’s restlessness reflects a world that dreads reading, where ‘tldr’ (that’s ‘too long, didn’t read’, if you have time for something more than an acronym) regularly rebuffs articles of more than three paragraphs. We’re in an age where many of our heroes prove literarily hollow. Bob Dylan may have turned to Sparknotes for the lowdown on Moby Dick. I’m bracing myself for the death knell that Morrissey used GCSE Bitesize.

Well, you’ll have your own thoughts on the Austenner. Let’s hope Austen – always game for a laugh – would temper her bemusement with amusement.