In July 2013, after a three-month campaign against the removal of historical women from English banknotes, it was announced by Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, that Jane Austen will be the face of the new ten pound note. Campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez defends the decision.
Given the ubiquity of costume dramas, from which most people get their Austen fix, you would be forgiven for seeing Jane Austen as “the 19th century version of Barbara Cartland”. She 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.
But there’s a reason why John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, has called Jane Austen “the greatest English writer apart from Shakespeare.”
Austen’s writing is alive with the subtle wit and verbal vivacity that we so prize in our greatest playwright. But she wasn’t just a wordsmith – and those who would 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 assumptions about the frivolity of books that focus on female experience.
A bull market
Austen’s writing is acutely aware of the constricted lives women led in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her focus on the marriage market – and market is absolutely the way she portrayed it – is profoundly satirical and critical. She may not have written about the Napoleonic Wars, but to 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’s philosophy?
In fact, Austen’s own feminism is abundantly clear. It manifests itself 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. It manifests itself 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”, while 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, it manifests itself in her evocation of how gender is a social performance, nearly 200 years before Judith Butler.
Fact follows fiction
Austen most powerfully explores this through the device of the fallen woman. A stock character of 18th-century literature, the fallen woman put the author of the conduct book Ladies Calling in a quandary. “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 an unacceptable danger to society.
While the author’s conclusion 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 a product of an environment that leaves them with little confidence in their own abilities.
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, a would-be Lord Byron who 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.