Jane Austen: A Feminist Icon?

Natural selection triumphs: Jane Austen has displaced Charles Darwin … on the British ten-pound note.

Last month on July 24th, the Bank of England announced that the image of Jane Austen would replace that of naturalist Charles Darwin on the British currency note.  Without irony, the Bank remarked that the selection of the 19th century British author to replace Charles Darwin was part of an effort to increase women’s representation on British currency.  The effort was in response to public outcry that more women do not appear on British notes—an outcry following the decision that Winston Churchill would replace Elizabeth Fry on the five-pound note.  She is the only woman currently featured on British currency.  The new notes will make their appearance in 2017.  As Bank of England governor Mark Carney remarked:

Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes. Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognized as one of the greatest writers in English literature.

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Darwin on BanknoteCharles Darwin’s theory of evolution and its reliance on the process of natural selection helped to spawn, albeit often through misinterpretation, social and political movements—including feminism—rooted in a utopian view of human history.  Darwin’s disappearance from the face of British currency, in deference to “gender equity” and in favor of a woman who has portrayed timeless mores, sentiments and social commitments in her novels, possesses an ironic and elegant circularity worthy of Jane Austen herself.  In the name of feminism, the Bank of England and the women who rendered their demands upon it, have restored the face of chivalry, manners and social stability to British currency.  British feminists have apparently located their current icon in the woman who conjured up Mr. Darcy.

In Jane Austen’s fiction, traditional personal and social mores are the organizing and enduring principles of her characters’ 19th century world.  However, while her characters must live in a society of often-intricate social rules, customs and seemingly entrenched social hierarchies, their humanity is not dictated by social class, money or education.  Individual qualities and personal sentiments endure beyond and outside of these artificial strictures or any “social construct.”  Her characters have minds and hearts of their own and are their own moral agents.  Recall that, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth Bennett despite her much humbler social status, and his misgivings about her mother’s and sisters’ comportment—no small concern in Regency England. Similarly, the disinherited and suddenly poverty-stricken Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility are able to find security—not through opportunism and calculation but by virtue of their individual character and the love it inspires.  Human nature is powerful, Austen tells us, and while it must exist within certain social and even political configurations, it is not determined by them.  Her characters remind us that individuals are not creatures of impersonal social and historical forces.

The characters in Austen’s novels are not idealized, nor is she a relativist painting a broad panorama of human experience where all are created equal. Individuals of all social classes might depart from the standards of decency, humility, courtesy and kindness, which Austen clearly upholds, but they suffer consequences. The sometimes elaborate rules of etiquette and courtship in Austen’s world are the indicators of a more substantive and timeless code of human morality and social ethics. Did British feminists not recall that Austen’s wise heroines unabashedly rely on these rules—which both protect a woman’s dignity and underscore gender distinctions?

In Austen’s world, the vain and obtuse do not, by virtue of mere presumption, get what they want: Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice, does not win the woman of his choice—Elizabeth Bennett.  She exercises her own will in this regard. The deceitful and the opportunistic do not find happiness: John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility marries for money, not love, and suffers for it.  The proud, even those possessed of intelligence and independence, also suffer for their folly: heroine Elizabeth Bennett almost loses Mr. Darcy.  Less gravely, the silly and meddlesome must mature, as in the case of Emma.  The anxious and overly pragmatic must yield to the human heart:  Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice tries and fails to force her daughter Elizabeth to marry for the family’s security. And the flighty and superficial gradually—sometimes—gain insight and gravity: Marianne Dashwood finally acquires both sense and sensibility to realize Colonel Brandon’s fine qualities and his genuine love for her.  Does this suggest an improvement of the species, humanity’s upward trajectory perhaps—or the vagaries of human nature and experience, the free exercise of individual will and the expression of spontaneous human emotion?

Despite the moral lessons one can glean from Jane Austen, she is not an exemplar of any ideology.  She evinces a knowledge of, and respect for, human nature and its stubborn independence from political and social structures.  So, Darwin and his enthusiasts should take heart—his disappearance from the face of British currency in favor of Jane Austen indeed suggests a triumph of nature, but nature of another sort entirely.

Editor’s note: The photo above features Bank of England governor Mark Carney showcasing the concept design for the new ten-pound banknote featuring Jane Austen.


  • Sydney Leach

    Sydney Leach is an attorney who writes from Virginia.

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