More or Less a Sterling Selection

article-0-1AF87501000005DC-220_634x431Jane Austen, never out of the limelight, has become the object of controversy. The writer’s face, or what we know of it from her sister’s amateur portrait, will adorn the next issue of Britain’s 10-pound note.

Cue appropriately restrained British jubilation. (In fairness, July was a big month given the birth of Prince George, an event trumpeted by the satirical mag Private Eye with the three-word front cover WOMAN HAS BABY.)

As for Jane, the new currency bears beneath her visage a quotation from Pride and Prejudice:  “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

Taken out of context, the words sound so earnest, so right. What could go wrong?

Alas, the line belongs to Caroline Bingley, whose views on reading, books, and libraries are purely instrumental. It’s a good catch she’s after, not a good read.

Readers of Lingua Franca may be acquainted with their own academic  Caroline Bingleys, those administrators and state legislators who can talk the talk of reading and libraries but seem to have their sights set on tastier prizes.

Many a politician indulges in Bingleyisms, and many are the decontextualizers. We can chuckle at United States senators and their reliance on our quotemaster general himself, Shakespeare of Stratford. Polonius and Iago, gentlemen on whom we might not choose to rely, have long been frequent sources for politicians. “Neither a borrower … ” oh, you know the rest. For that matter, I don’t want to see “Put money in thy purse” on the next 50-pound note or as the epigraph to Ben Bernanke’s next white paper.

But off our high horses, professors of literature. Who says a quotation is always a quotation?

In the history of what Willis Regier has dubbed “quotology,” it’s been some time—centuries, even—since we entertained a shift from quotation as sententiae, a means of connection to the wisdom of the past, to quotation as a way of showing how connected we are to the present.

The move to put Austen on the new notes has met with some bizarre resistance, including threats to a woman who campaigned for the novelist’s translation from script to scrip. But Jane has come through, as Janeites knew she would.

Austen becomes only the second nonroyal woman to appear on a British banknote. The first was the 5-pound note’s Elizabeth Fry. (Raise your hand if you know who she was without checking Wikipedia. Time’s up. Fry was an early 19th-century Quaker and prison reformer.) Fry will be replaced by a fellow named Winston Churchill.

Austen replaces Charles Darwin. And why not? There’s no female writer or historical figure in the masterpiece theater of English culture with a more ardent following.

If somebody lends me a tenner, I’ll be happy to see Austen’s face and Caroline Bingley’s insincere praise of reading. For behind her character’s vacuousness is Austen’s own sincerity—cool, ironic, and more complex than one might expect for a writer as inexhaustibly popular as she.

For all the good feeling about reading the designers of the new note might imagine emanating from their creation, the currency might as well have had printed on it “Jane Austen. What she said.”

So they may have not got precisely the right words under Jane’s face. At least there are words.

Charles Darwin, after all, got no words at all—just his picture. Maybe he should have piped up.

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