July 26, 2013 | 7
Earlier this week, the Bank of England made an announcement that should warm many a literati’s heart: Jane Austen will be the new face of the £10 note. The reason for the change? Critics had long been demanding a more equitable representation of women in Britain’s currency—a gender imbalance that had grown even more severe when the £5 note’s Elizabeth Fry made way for Sir Winston Churchill in late April. That left an arsenal entirely deprived of non-royal women (Elizabeth II remains a-circulating, as always), as the only other commoner female to have ever graced Britain’s paper money supply, Florence Nightingale, had been withdrawn from circulation in 1994. Such an obvious disparity was, quite obviously, long overdue for redress.
To me, though, the symbolism of the moment has nothing whatsoever to do with Austen’s gender. What warms my heart isn’t that she’s female, or that she’s rectifying some sort of past gender discrimination, but something else entirely: Austen is replacing Charles Darwin. A writer replacing a scientist. A creator of fiction replacing one of the quintessential figures of the hard sciences. That, in my mind, represents an equally important, and perhaps more pernicious, imbalance—and one no less worthy of acknowledgment.
The choice of a nation’s currency is filled with symbolic meaning: who, out of all the people in the national history, is worthy of inclusion in this most national of all things, the monetary system? Who is worth passing around, sharing, having in front of your eyes each time you reach for your wallet? Who do we want to represent us to the foreign eye when it first glimpses our currency in the airport exchange kiosk or on a first visit to the store? The choice says much about values and priorities, about the type of face a country wants to put forward for external scrutiny and national pride.
I don’t know that anything apart from gender was on the mind of Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s recently appointed governor, when he made this particular decision, but for me, the choice is filled with secondary meaning. It paints an equivalence between the arts and the sciences: each face is equally worthy of assuming the same place and value in Britain’s present. Jane Austen is just as worthy of constant memory as is Charles Darwin. She isn’t somehow inferior because she didn’t create something in the hard sciences, nor he, somehow superior because his contribution was a scientific one to her “soft,” unscientific prose.
It’s a point worth stressing in a society where, more often than not, the type of knowledge that we acquire through the sciences is seen as somehow inherently superior to that acquired through the humanities, where an ever-growing stress is placed on what is practical over what seems so, well, frivolous. I’ve written repeatedly about why that reasoning is so fallacious, so will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that it’s an imbalance we don’t consider nearly as often (hence, my earlier choice of the word pernicious).
The percentage of females in the history of Britain’s banknotes has been put to the highest scrutiny. But consider this: yes, there were only two women, but there were also ever only two writers, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. The rest of the fourteen luminaries (I’m not counting the two future releases, Austen and Churchill)? Politicians and economists, scientists and engineers, a nurse and some steam boat manufacturers. The only other representative of a ‘softer’ discipline: the composer Sir Edward Elgar. That’s a minority for the arts that is just as clear and overwhelming as the one that has garnered all of the attention, the minority for the women. And it’s one that should be no less disturbing. What happens to a society that forgets its softer side, that replaces everything that’s not immediately practical with something that is? Better writers than I have already responded to that question—but whether you espouse the realism of Joseph Brodsky or the dystopianism of Ray Bradbury, the answer is no less bleak.
The legacy of a Charles Darwin is not to be underestimated, nor his importance to knowledge to be slighted. But the legacy of a Jane Austen is no less crucial. So let’s take a moment to consider that symbolism, the equivalence implied in the gesture of replacing the one with the other. I hope that’s a message that is heard just as clearly as the more obvious gender lesson. It is certainly no less important, and no less worthy of our attention.