2 November 2016: Jane Austen, Kent and the Curious Incident of the £10 Note

For the Wye Historical Society's November 2016 meeting there wasn't a spare seat left to hear Dr Jennie Batchelor speak on "Jane Austen, Kent and the Curious Incident of the £10 Note". In 2017 Jane Austen will replace Darwin on the £10 note. Dr Batchelor spoke on what that represents. She started by comparing what £10 would buy now and in Jane's day. It was a significant sum - after her father's death Jane, her mother and sister were reliant on a £50 annual allowance from her brother, of which Jane spent £13 per year on clothing. £10 also has a symbolic value. It was the amount negotiated for what she hoped would be her first novel published (Northanger Abbey). But it was not to be; the publisher kept her waiting and ultimately changed his mind. It was over six years before Jane could afford the £10 to buy her manuscript back.

Although there is no 'acceptable' likeness of Jane in existence, the portrait on the new note is still a controversial choice. There is only one image certified genuine - a sketch by her sister Cassandra - but this shows Jane with a sour expression. For a biography published in 1870 an engraving was made which 'improved' the image, making her look more sympathetic - youthful and wistful. It's this "airbrushed" version which is used on the £10 note, and though the Bank of England refers to the choice as a pragmatic decision Dr Batchelor finds it niggles her.

It's not only the portrait which arguably constructs a work of fiction. The grand house depicted is Godmersham Park in Kent, and although Jane often stayed there it belonged to her brother Edward. She lived in the much more humble Chawton Cottage on her brother's Hampshire estate, and strongly identified herself in that county rather than Kent. Although it is a house that Jane loved she couldn't call herself mistress of it, so why is it this house which features? It plays up to the idea that Jane Austen and her novels are associated with grand houses.

Also on the note there is an illustration of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice - a graphical design of a twelve-sided writing desk and quills. The final design element is a quotation taken from Pride and Prejudice: "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading". Although seemingly harmless this line is spoken by Caroline Bingley and in context is laden with irony - Caroline, all artifice, is actually a bad reader, merely trying to attract the attention of Mr Darcy. Dr Batchelor argues that there are better quotes to choose from.

With the sentimentalised portrait, the emphasis on Pride and Prejudice and suggestion that money and grand houses are the focus of her novels, the new note presents a constructed concept of Jane Austen that will be familiar to the general public but is ultimately misleading.

Ellie Morris