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Why Jane Austen will be very at home on the new £10 banknote

To mark the 200th anniversary of her death, Jane Austen will appear on a Bank of England £10 note this year. But this is not the first Austen banknote. EJ Clery reveals the shady business comings and goings around a literature queen

In 2013 the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announced that Jane Austen would appear on the redesigned £10 note (pictured above), scheduled for issue in 2017 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of her death. There was a flurry of media excitement, most of it inspired by the success of the campaign, ‘Keep a Woman on English Banknotes’, led by Caroline Criado-Perez. There was also sustained and deplorable harassment of Criado-Perez and other women because of their simple aim of getting Austen on a banknote (see below).

However, few spoke about the fact that a £10 ‘Austen’ banknote was already in existence.

Jane’s brother Henry built up a small empire of country banks with its headquarters in London. A £10 banknote (below) issued by the Alton bank is now on display at the cottage where Jane once lived, in the neighbouring village of Chawton. It was here, at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire, that the announcement about the new tenner’s design was made.

Jane’s publishing career and imaginative life as a novelist was intimately connected with her brother’s rise and fall

Henry Austen went almost unmentioned, for the good reason that he had gone bust. His banking enterprise had been swallowed up in the post-war financial crash of 1816, and family, friends and neighbours had suffered losses. This was an aspect of Jane’s life brushed under the carpet by descendants and neglected by biographers. But Jane’s publishing career and imaginative life as a novelist was intimately connected with Henry’s rise and fall.

Henry was Jane’s favourite among her six brothers. They were drawn together by temperament, both of them quick and witty. Once Jane began writing novels in earnest their tie became professional. His various homes in London were her base of operation for entering the publishing industry. Henry acted as her literary agent. After her death he arranged publication of her final works and presented the public with the earliest biographical sketches of his sister.

Once upon a time Jane Austen’s insistence on the importance of a good income was downplayed. It clashed with the image of sweet Aunt Jane which developed in Victorian times. Today there is better appreciation of her attention to the bottom line. Yet the influence of Henry Austen (right), Jane’s most important and direct link with the economic transformations of her time, has been neglected. I’ve always been interested in the conjunction of literature and economics, and the Bank of England’s decision was the spur to make a systematic investigation of Henry’s career.

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This was a challenge. None of the many letters that passed between Jane and Henry have survived, and the official report on his bankruptcy had been shredded. However, since the late 1990s scholars associated with the Jane Austen Society had been piecing together aspects of his life. On this basis I carried out my own research, visiting Henry and Jane’s former haunts and spending time among Austen bank ledgers and family papers. I’ve written a dual biography of brother and sister in the belief that Henry’s enterprises have a substantial bearing on Jane Austen’s life and her creativity.

Henry’s story has, in fact, the makings of a novel. He was intended for the clergy, but at the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, he joined the militia and was quickly promoted to captain and paymaster. He married his cousin Eliza, the wealthy widow of a French aristocrat, and with her fortune as equity Henry set up in London as an agent managing regimental pay and the sale of army commissions. From the beginn-ing he was drawn into a culture of corruption, and came under pressure to lend money to a profligate favourite of the wastrel Prince Regent.

Henry tried to spread his portfolio, eventually gaining the prestigious post of tax collector for Oxfordshire. He was brought down in the end partly through forces beyond his control, but mostly by his fateful connection with the Prince’s dissolute Carlton House set. He went bankrupt owing tax revenue equivalent to millions and the wealthiest members of the Austen clan were liable as his backers. The whole extended family was brought to breaking point.

  • How Jane Austen changed Twitter

For the audacity of proposing that Jane Austen deserved a place on a banknote in 2013, feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to a shocking onslaught of misogynist Twitter trolling. Sick messages included “if your friends survived rape they weren’t raped properly”, “die bitch :)”, “I’d do a lot worse than rape you”, and others threatening to hunt her down and kill her. Criado-Perez said such abuse was common, “but I’ve never seen it get as intense or aggressive as this. It’s infuriating that the price you pay for standing up for women is 24 hours of rape threats.” After her experience 60,000 people signed a petition that led to Twitter introducing a ‘report abuse’ button. Two people – Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo – served prison sentences after admitting trolling her. This year Nimmo was sentenced to 27 months for tweeting anti-Semitic abuse and death threats to MP Luciana Berger and other people.

Jane’s approach to the book trade was part of this picture. Henry encouraged her to take the unusual route of publishing ‘on commission’, at the author’s risk, rather than selling copyright. She was persuaded by his promise to underwrite any losses, and followed this speculative practice for all but one of her later works with mixed results. Jane stayed with Henry in London and socialised with his banks associates. Her letters home refer to his exploits and glory in his successes. She nursed him through a dangerous illness immed-iately before the bank failure and understood its causes.

The closeness between brother and sister is reflected in the novels. Versions of Henry (pictured below) appear in her fiction, not least his namesake, the charming but unscrupulous Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, master of the fashionable card-game ‘Speculation’. In the later novels Jane worked through her increasing doubts about the speculative mind-set and the shock caused by the collapse of Henry’s enterprise, in which she suffered losses along with the rest of the family. She loved him too much to blame him, however, and even in her last unfinished novel, Sanditon, which promised to be the chronicle of a comparable failure, financial risk-taking is treated with indulgence.

Certain aspects of Austen’s life appear very differently through the prism of Henry’s banking career. The standard assumption has been that her environment was rural, traditionalist and staunchly Tory. Placing Henry in the foreground gives a radically revised view of her awareness of contemporary events. Equally, Henry’s business affairs provide a window onto a modernising nation, centred on a metropolis which was in the process of becoming the world’s financial capital. His ventures were perfectly attuned to the spirit of the times and have striking resonance for the present day.

Henry’s business affairs provide a window onto a modernising nation, as London became the world’s financial capital

Following the crash of 2008 and the consequent scrutiny of the culture of banking, Jane Austen’s links with ‘the economic basis of society’ make her newly relevant. This is a case of one age of speculation mirroring another. During the war against Napoleon, banking was deregulated, expanded and internationalised. Innovative methods sometimes involved dubious morality and there were rapid cycles of boom and bust. For a time, Henry thrived. He was the early 19th-century embodiment of the ‘animal spirits’ identified by Maynard Keynes as the mainspring of capitalism.

Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister counters the stereotype, still widespread, of the spinster tucked away in a Hampshire village, detached from the great historical changes of her era. Readers will see the decision of the Bank of England to put Austen on the £10 banknote as a knowing wink from destiny.

EJ Clery is a Professor of English at the University of Southampton. Her book Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister (Biteback Publishing, £20) is out now in hardback

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