Posted: 03rd Jul 2013
Topic: Pounds and Prejudice
Jane Austen has been confirmed as Charles Darwin’s successor on the Bank of England’s ten pound note. We can only speculate how this would have been received in the Bennet household two hundred years ago …
"My dear Mr Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard the news?"
Mr Bennet replied that he had not.
"The ten pound note," returned she, "will display a portrait of a woman who writes books. I simply cannot imagine it!"
"You cannot imagine a woman writing books?" Mr Bennet raised one eyebrow with considerable effort. "A strange confession, when you are always the first name on the circulating library list for Mrs Radcliffe’s novels. Of course, whether this is merely to displace Lady Lucas, or whether you actually read them, I have yet to determine."
"No, no – it is the ten pound note that I cannot imagine. Such a large fortune, in a single bank note. Why, ten pounds would supply me with bonnets for the rest of my life!"
"I think not, my dear. With your appetite for finery, a ten pound note would provide little more than a season’s worth of bonnets. On the other hand, ten pounds would set me up very nicely in books for my library, or French wine for my cellar …" Mr Bennet gave a deep sigh. "But I digress. You allude, I suppose, to the announcement by Mr King of the Bank of England, that the next face to appear on a bank note will indeed be Miss Jane Austen’s."
"Do not you want to know my opinion of it?" cried his wife impatiently.
"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."
This was invitation enough.
"Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs Long says that no one wants some old spinster from an unfashionable part of Hampshire on a bank note. She assures me that our Jane would be far more suitable and I am forced to agree with her. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that our eldest daughter is the most beautiful creature! You shall write to this Mr King at once and tell him so. Dear Jane on a ten pound note – what a fine thing that would be for all our girls!"
"How so? how can it affect them?"
"My dear Mr Bennet," replied his wife, "how can you be so tiresome! You must know that it would materially improve their prospects of marrying well. All the eligible rich men in England will see Jane’s likeness on their ten pound notes and make haste to be introduced to her and her sisters."
"Is that Mr King’s design in choosing Miss Austen ahead of a man – to find her a rich husband?"
"Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that a wealthy man – one with failing eyesight, no doubt – may fall in love with her portrait and seek her hand in marriage. You must therefore write to Mr King and offer him our Jane instead."
"I see no occasion for that. Miss Austen has evidently earned her place through the wit and wisdom of her writing … In that regard, perhaps I ought to throw in a good word for my little Lizzy – she has something more of quickness than Jane."
"I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the other girls; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference." Mrs Bennet’s face crumpled in distress. "Mr Bennet, you take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves."
"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."
She looked askance at him, unsure of his meaning, before returning to the fray. "But, my dear, only think what Jane’s marriage to a rich man would do for us all. I insist that you write to Mr King and send him my miniature of her, so that he might compare her face with Miss Austen’s."
“You are over-scrupulous surely. I dare say Mr King considers the matter of the ten pound note settled and his mind is now more pleasurably engaged. Even as we speak, he must be debating whose fair features will grace the twenty pound note – or, dare I say, the fifty pound one."
This drew a gasp of disbelief. "A fifty pound note? I never heard of such a thing. I simply cannot imagine it!"
“Whereas Lady Lucas and Mrs Long can imagine it only too well. The hands that would fritter away fifty pounds at a time must belong to the richest men in the land. Perhaps that is why Mrs Long was so generous as to suggest Jane’s face for the ten pound note, rather than her own daughter’s. Why catch the minnow when you can see the pike close by?"
"Why indeed!" Mrs Bennet was all indignation at being so ill used by her friend. "I shall never speak to that woman again."
"Far better, my dear, to visit the entire neighbourhood at once and discover what you can. While there is no hint of these new bank notes in the newspapers, I suspect that someone of our acquaintance will profess to know exactly what Mr King is planning, and enlighten you accordingly."
Mrs Bennet had no time to lose. Without even a parting word of gratitude or endearment she whirled out of the room, shrieking for Hill to find her new spring bonnet.
Mr Bennet, meanwhile, was left to spend the rest of the day in relative peace and quiet – an ordeal which he suffered with admirable fortitude.
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