Jane Austen on a £10 note – a good choice for a bad reason
From Mr Alexander Boot:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of good talent must be in want of commemoration.
Aesthetic judgment comes into this only tangentially, if at all. Still, de gustibus... and all that, for what it’s worth I think Jane Austen is an overrated writer, though clearly a very good one.
Her Elizabeth Bennet is a bit one-dimensional compared to Emma Bovary, never mind Anna Karenina.
Her satire lacks the bite of Swift’s, Thackeray’s or Dickens’s, although in the last case Austen makes up for it by eschewing cloying sentimentality and socialist bias.
And her contribution to the English language is slight by comparison to the three gentlemen I mentioned, to say nothing of Shakespeare or Lancelot Andrewes (of the KJB fame).
Yet Austen’s name is instantly recognisable all over the world, especially since her prose effortlessly lends itself to the format of a TV series.
For that reason alone, she’d merit anyone’s consideration as a candidate for the female face on the tenner. Alas, that reason isn’t alone.
Jane Austen’s case wasn’t championed by scholars or literary critics. It was put forward by feminists – and for them she qualifies on the strength of being a famous English woman, rather than just a famous English writer. It’s only for God and St Paul that there was 'neither male nor female'.
Regarded in that light, one can think of a few other English women whose claim to this accolade would appear to be stronger than Austen’s.
Elizabeth I springs to mind. Good Queen Bess was easily the greatest woman in English history, and arguably the greatest head of state. Also, she was no less of a woman than Jane Austen, and just as single.
So why not choose Elizabeth I? Surely she must make every feminist proud? How many other women (or even men) can be said to have altered the course of English history as dramatically? Precious few, I dare say.
Perhaps in a century or two Margaret Thatcher will be viewed in a similar way, though it’s too early to tell. Yet not too many eyebrows would have been raised had she been picked to grace the £10 note. If we must have a woman, and Elizabeth I isn’t to our liking, why not Lady Thatcher?
Anyone asking such questions misses the point altogether. Which is that to a feminist a woman is defined not physiologically but politically. Feminism and femininity may be cognates but they’re closer to being antonyms than synonyms.
To qualify as a woman in the feminist canon, it’s not enough for a person to have two X chromosomes. She must also have the X factor reflecting aspects of victimhood (real or imaginary, it doesn’t matter), general left-wing inclination and unwavering commitment to the mathematical fallacy that 51 percent of the population constitutes a minority.
Jane Austen accomplished too much to be seen as a victim in retrospect, and her politics are uncertain. Still, as a single Hampshire woman who wrote unthreatening novels featuring women as main protagonists, she qualifies, by a whisker. A queen who united the realm or a politician who busted the unions doesn’t – not by a long chalk.
And speaking of the politician who busted the unions, when commissioned to compile a list of prominent women in politics, Harriet Harmon didn’t even mention Margaret Thatcher, though Diane Abbot, Britain’s first black woman MP, figured prominently. Since Lady Thatcher was demonstrably prominent in politics, she clearly wasn’t regarded as a woman.
Similarly Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was US Ambassador to the UN and an ardent anticommunist, was denied her womanhood by the feminists – who at the same time complained of the dearth of women in ministerial posts.
Kirkpatrick just didn’t count as a woman. At present, the same honour bypasses Sarah Palin, a mother of five children who, for all her manifest faults, was the governor of America’s largest state and a presidential candidate.
This is all symptomatic of the semantic larceny of modernity: words have lost any real meaning, acquiring instead a virtual one. These days ‘husband’ may well mean a woman, ‘wife’ a man, ‘Tutu’ a Christian or ‘Dave Cameron’ a Tory.
So let’s rejoice that, for all her achievements and political neutrality, Jane Austen still qualifies as a woman. Just.
Alexander Boot is a writer on political, cultural and religious themes