The £10 note, commonly called a “tenner,” holds a special place in British hearts. It buys a measure of solace at the pub, or a meal for two at Marks & Spencer. Earlier this year, the UK’s “Tenner Bank” initiative gave 5,000 students a crisp £10 note, in the hopes they would invest it rather than buying crisps.
Jane Austen certainly knew the value of a tenner. In 1803, she sold her novel Susan to a London publisher, Richard Crosby, for £10. He failed to publish it, and, six years later, Austen wrote him asking why it had vanished. Fine, have the book back, the publisher said … if you give me £10. (I imagine him cackling, and dispatching the letter via shivering urchin.)
Of course, she did not have £10. Her father had died a few years earlier, leaving Jane, her sister and their mother in straitened circumstances. Two hundred years later, however, she is revenged: Her novel, published as Northanger Abbey, is still in print, and her face will appear on Britain’s £10 notes. She’ll replace Charles Darwin on the currency in 2017 – sorry, but that’s evolution.
Her appearance on the banknotes is particularly apt, for money is to Austen’s novels what the sea is to Patrick O’Brian’s: the thing that keeps the story afloat, and provides most of the danger. As the haughty Mary Crawford says in Mansfield Park, it is a “true London maxim, that everything is to be got with money.”
You may be forgiven for wondering, when you pull a $10 from your wallet, where Canada’s Jane Austen is. Why is there no Mazo de la Roche on our money, no Margaret Laurence, no Anne Hébert? You might even think, gazing at our banknotes, that this country was populated entirely by men for the past 150 years, in defiance of biology and cold winters. (Yes, the Queen’s on the cash, but that hardly counts.) If it were up to me, Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara would be on our $10 bills, which may be why I wasn’t asked to run the Bank of Canada.
“It’s hard to believe that this is 2013,” says Merna Forster, who’s been leading a lonely crusade to place images of Canadian women on our money. “It’s like the dark ages.” Ms. Forster is a Victoria-based historian who works to educate young people about the forgotten women who helped build the country. She recently had to tell a group of students that Kim Campbell was not, as they thought, the owner of Campbell’s Soup, or the wife of former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, but the first female prime minister of this country. You can see why she’s exhausted.
“I’d kind of lost hope,” she said about her currency campaign, until she read about the effort spearheaded by Caroline Criado-Perez to put Austen on banknotes. British feminists had been annoyed that prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was to be taken off the £5 note, leaving no women on the country’s currency (except the one who occupies the throne). Ms. Criado-Perez got 35,000 signatures on a petition and met with new Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, who announced the Austen banknotes this week.
“Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes,” Mr. Carney’s statement read. “Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognized as one of the greatest writers in English literature.”
That Mark Carney? I hear you asking. The Mark Carney who was governor of the Bank of Canada when the only women on our banknotes were replaced by a boat? It appears that Mr. Carney has learned a lesson. In 2011, the “Famous Five,” the group responsible for having Canadian women declared “persons,” were removed from the $50 bill and replaced by an icebreaker. From person to inanimate object, all in a century of progress.
An icebreaker, like all the images on our currency – from shinny to astronauts to trains – is designed to be painfully neutral in the most Canadian way possible. A draft of the $100 bill featuring an innocuous, vaguely Asian-looking woman scientist caused an uproar last year.
Ms. Forster is energized by the Austen victory, even though it caused a sexist backlash on social media. She has started a petition on change.org to have more women – any women – on Canadian money. She points to Australia, where the new bills feature a prominent man from the country’s history on one side, and a prominent woman on the other. My favourite is Mary Reibey, transported as a teenaged convict from England, who went on to found a business empire.
Canada’s history may not be as rich in miscreants made good, but there’s still a motherlode of fascinating women to celebrate. We’ve produced explorers and scientists and activists and writers, many of them ignored in their lifetimes and lost to history. It’s a small tribute that we could pay, and it wouldn’t cost a thing.