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Cents and Sensibility

Forget gender -- Austen deserves her place on British currency for knowing the power of money

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In a recent reshuffling of the faces on Britain's currency, it was announced in July that prison reformer Elizabeth Fry would be retired from the five-pound note, having been bumped by Winston Churchill, and that Jane Austen would soon be gracing the 10-pound note, having elbowed out Charles Darwin.

The choice was hailed by feminists because it ensured that a woman (besides the Queen) would remain on British currency. And gender representation is important.

But the best reason for having Austen on a bank note is because she wrote brilliantly about money.

Every one of Austen's six novels starts off with some reference to the characters' wealth or property. Austen deals with money frankly and unflinchingly, and in niggly detail. Forget euphemizing: She is never shy about exact figures, nailing down Mr. Darcy's income as 10,000 pounds a year, which scholars peg at about $814,000 in today's Canadian currency. Based on the average per capita income of the day, Mr. Darcy would have been in the one per cent.

Mr. Darcy, the best known of the Austen men, may have been rolling in it, but others are just scraping by. Austen's world is one of wills and inheritances, annuities and debts, real estate and "improvements" (those 19th-century precursors to today's lavish home renovations) and chronic money worries.

Austen casts a caustic eye on weak-willed characters who pine after what they don't have or mismanage what they do. Proving to be thoroughly modern, she even offers cynical commentary on mindless consumption. In Pride and Prejudice, gadabout sister Lydia is shown to be a ninny when she buys a bonnet she doesn't like with money she doesn't have.

Austen's common-sense approach to finances has been picked up by Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones, authors of Jane Austen's Guide to Thrift: An Independent Woman's Advice on Living Within One's Means. A modern handbook for contemporary gentlewomen, whether in "reduced circumstances" or not, the book offers hints for spending and saving with "elegant economy and joyful generosity."

Scholars and writers have also examined the role of money in Austen's work. The poet W.H. Auden wrote about the unsparing way Austen revealed "the economic basis of society," while British critic David Daiches suggested she was "a Marxist before Marx." Her subject might seem narrow -- "three or four families in a country village," as she once described it -- but there are always larger social and economic forces at play, and a keen sense of the way money presses down on human relationships.

Austen is often seen as some kind of romance novelist. (It doesn't help that Keira Knightley looked particularly swoony in the last P&P adaptation.) While Austen helped form the romance template of "meeting, misunderstanding and marriage," she was anything but a starry-eyed romantic, having a bracingly pragmatic view of male-female relationships. She had a horror of people who marry only for money, but felt only idiots married without considering it. When Austen writes about love, the pounds and pence are never far away.

Women of her day couldn't afford to not think about money. The choice of a husband was often the only "business decision" a woman could make, and women who didn't marry often faced a life of economic dependence and penny-pinching "female economies."

Far from being sheltered, Austen was acutely aware of economic exigencies. In letters to her sister, Cassandra, she discusses the prices of butter, cheese and fish, down to the shilling. Though her early biographers liked to emphasize her "femininity," noting her neatness with a needle and her stoic, spinsterish acceptance of her limited lot, she was very much interested in the business of publishing, hoping that revenue from her books might augment her modest income.

If we could bring her into the present day, Jane Austen would probably tell young women to be prepared to make their own way economically. She'd advise them to avoid wastrels and spendthrifts and hold out for a man who's sexy in a responsible, fiscally prudent sort of way.

Someone rather like Mark Carney, in fact -- the former Bank of Canada governor who is dark and kind of handsome and currently drawing a Mr. Darcy-like salary as the new governor of the Bank of England. Carney is overseeing the currency redesign, and in his official statement he praises Austen, saying that "her novels have an enduring and universal appeal, and she is recognised as one of the greatest writers in English literature."

Well, it's good for young girls to have a female literary model. But it's even better for them to have a female financial model. Perhaps Jane's clear-eyed gaze on the 10-pound note will keep them from throwing away their hard-earned cash on needless reticules, bonnets and pelisses. Maybe it will even encourage them to put a little something into a tax-free savings account.

As Austen once wrote, "A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 D14

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