Do the British Really Want Jane Austen On Their Money?


A month after the news surfaced that wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill will be the new face of the £5 note, speculation is mounting over who will be the new face of the £10 bank note and Jane Austen has been tipped as the favorite by the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King.

The decision to put Churchill on the new issue of the £5 note (which will be issued in 2016), whilst popular, was not immune from criticism; the current face of the £5 note is prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. With Adam Smith and Charles Darwin being the current faces of the £20 and £10 note respectively, and James Watt and Matthew Boulton on the £50 note; this means that there will be no women on the British currency (except for the Queen). To date only two women have been the face of an English bank note, the other one being the nurse Florence Nightingale.

Whilst King's suggestion that "Jane Austen is quietly waiting in the wings" is enough to send Austen fans and feminists alike into fits of glee, there's part of me that isn't actually sure if Jane Austen should be the face of the £10 note in part because she seems too obvious a choice and some would go as far to suggest that Austen hasn't exactly changed the world, and some would even admit that Austen is too obvious a choice.

A campaign to keep a woman on the British bank note has been gaining momentum, but what is also great about the debate is that it's not just about honoring individuals but also about recognizing people whose achievements have gone unnoticed.

Suggestions for who should be the new female face of the £10 note have included writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book the Vindication of the Rights of Woman is seen as one of the cornerstones of feminist thought; Emmeline Pankhurst a political activist who campaigned for women's suffrage; and of course Margaret Thatcher, the first ever female British Prime Minister. Other names that have been touted have included Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Agatha Christie, and even Vivienne Westwood.

I used to be one of those cynics who thought having this debate didn't really matter. Now I realize that yes it does, not because it is about equality, but because it's about recognizing the people who made a contribution to British society that makes Brits proud to say they are British. What the debate on the face of British banknotes has achieved is that people are now talking more about "unsung heroes" from history, and recognising that history has been shaped by people of different creeds and not just white men.

People like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first English woman to qualify as a doctor who would later go on to set up her own hospital staffed by women; Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist whose research led to the discovery of DNA; and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the first British female Nobel Laureate (chemistry) have been ignored or forgotten very much like Elizabeth Fry herself until she appeared on the £5 note, now everyone knows who Fry is.

Great Britain is proud of the fact that it openly embraces multiculturalism, and if that's the case, why stop at just having women? Why not have an ethnic minority on the face of a bank note? The idea of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-Scottish nurse who travelled independently to help wounded British troops on the battlefield of the Crimean War; or even Olaudah Equiano, the Nigerian slave who bought his own freedom and was later involved in the British movement for the abolition of the slave trade, would be progress.

I am not suggesting that Austen is not a worthy candidate on the contrary I find the prospect of Austen being on the bank note quite exciting. There's no taking away from the fact that Austen is one of the ambassadors of British culture and definitely someone people are proud to call British.