Mark Carney, the former governor the Bank of Canada, now the Governor of the Bank of England, is now faced with the decision whether to place Jane Austen on the £10 banknote, in place of the current incumbent, Charles Darwin – a gender-equality dilemma created by the displacement from the £5 note of Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer, in favour of Sir Winston Churchill.
Austen would be a particularly fitting presence on British currency, not only as a great writer, but also because of her keen interest in economics and finance. Even a quick glance through the annotations in the six-volume Oxford University Press edition by R.W. Chapman shows how often she reported the value of her characters’ assets and their annual income, matters of great importance in human relationships in her time as in ours – but neglected by fiction writers in the 20th and 21st centuries.
She is clear about the varying interest rates on the government bonds (the changing yields on “consols,” to be more precise) that financed the Napoleonic wars. Debts and estate planning – or lack of it – figure, too, as do income from patronage and the “poor rates”: the local financing of what we now call “welfare.”
Charles Darwin was a good writer, too, and his theory of evolutionary is ultimately a form of statistical and probablistic thinking, which is akin to economics.And no doubt his biology has altered our whole view of the world, in a way that Austen’s novels do not.
But Austen continually raises issues of the relation of money and wealth to living standards and people’s aspirations. As a great literary artist, with an unusually acute attention to economic phenomena, she would be a remarkably appropriate presence on a denomination of the British currency, issued by the Bank of England. Mr. Carney would be well advised to opt for Jane Austen.