28 July 2013

Austen notes

First off, this is absolutely awesome, almost as awesome as the arrival of young George Alexander Louis Windsor, the week-old son of William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and third in line to the British throne. If the fact that Britain still puts literary figures on their banknotes is not proof of the continuing stature and dignity of its civilisation, I don’t know what is. I am aware that there are some critiques of the quotation that is to be used on the note, ‘I declare after all there is no pleasure like reading’ being the insincere words of the shallow and vicious Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice rather than the sincere sentiment by which the Bank of England means them to be taken. Even so, the placement of Austen on a British banknote is something to be rejoiced in.

Ms Austen being only the third woman to grace a UK banknote is reason enough for celebration, women’s contributions to British culture being manifold and great (though personally, I would have preferred to see St Margaret of Scotland’s, Julian of Norwich’s or Isabella Gilmore’s faces portrayed with somewhat greater prominence than they are!). Even so, certain journalists still somehow see Austen as ‘safe’ and ‘bland’, two words I would certainly not use to describe her. Her keen perceptive capacities and insight into human motivations, weakness and nobility give her novels a timeless quality, but considering her context gives her novels even more bite. She ridiculed the distortions and indifferences of privilege in her own day a litotic-but-sharp way which many more leftist authors of both fiction and non-fiction would do well to emulate, and her sympathies lay (unsurprisingly, given her background as a single woman without property) with poor women who had few-to-no means of self support. Sir Walter Scott saw the value – both literary and social – in her books when most of her contemporaries dismissed her as trifling (a trend to which we are now very sadly returning). It doesn’t help that American audiences, lacking in culture and erudition as we are, when faced with Austen novels are generally too dazzled by the great mansions, the Regency dresses and the fancy parties to clue into the fact that she was busy subtly skewering all of the above.

It’s a great thing that the British government is doing something to commemorate the life of this extraordinary woman-of-letters, and even greater that people like Caroline Criado-Perez have stuck their necks out to see this happen. But it’s also unfortunate that it’s brought the anti-Austen snobs and angrier-and-more-feminist-than-thou types out of the woodwork.

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