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I refer not to the rather poorly designed and ill-fated hatchback that appeared on our streets in the 1980’s (my, how cars have come on!) but the literary heroine so closely associated with the fair city of Bath.
Jane Austen is on everybody’s lips right now as she is on the new £10 banknote that appears in September 2017 replacing Charles Darwin, whose be-whiskered portrait is being retired after gracing our tenner for some 17 years.
It would have greatly appealed to my sense of humour and wordplay if a leading singing tenor had been featured on the banknote (rather in the way that Abigail was the first storm in the Met Office’s new naming system) but Alfie Boe was edged out in favour of Jane Austen as the pick of the bunch.
Before Charles Darwin appeared in the autumn of 2000 the £10 note slot was occupied by Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale and if anybody can remember back to the 1970’s, by an illustration of a lion! So Ms Austen here is in exalted company but, in my view, a very worthy pick.
Her books have a timeless quality that explores the frailty of human nature and the subtle manners that make Brits what they are. Although she only wrote six major books they are all classics in their own way with Pride and Prejudice generally thought of as being the most brilliantly drawn portrait of the middle and upper classes England of its time. She also was a flagbearer for headstrong and clever women in an age where men ruled the world. She was ahead of her time.
Bath features prominently in her novels and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published after she died in 1817, are set here. Austen lived in Bath for a period, just across the road from our offices here in Queen Square and she was clearly enraptured by the city.
In Northanger Abbey Austen wrote,
'They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; - her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already'.
Clearly Austen was excited by this city, still really buzzing as a fashionable city in Regency times. Bath in the 1801 census was about half the size by population that it is today and in the context of much smaller towns of that era before the industrialised giant cities of the 19th century it must have been one of the largest cities of its day. It was a glittering jewel of the Georgian and Regency eras.
I may be biased, but I think it still is!
So what is good for Jane Austen; like appearing on our banknotes, is good for Bath. It’s just another thing that puts us on the map.
The esteem in which Austen is held these days has obviously been helped by the brilliant dramatisations and films that have come out in recent decades (who will ever top the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Darcy and Lizzie Bennett?). Interestingly, Jane Austen was rather passed over in her day and only started to achieve a measure of fame after her death. She died young, aged 42, in 1817
Charles Darwin went on to die at 71. But it is likely that the Jane Austen banknote will last longer than the Darwin note as it is packed full of security features and is made of polymer rather than paper.
That is, of course, if we’re still using tenner’s 20 years from now….