Ten-pound Women: Pretty, Romantic, Colonial

Somerville (young)

Whilst Austen may become the sole female representative on English banknotes, between the inception of the conference and its delivery, the Bank of Scotland has printed – for the first time ever – not one but two women on their banknotes: Nan Shepherd, author, came out in May 2016 and Mary Somerville, scientist, will be printed in 2017. I must thank Deborah Simonton (University of Turku) for drawing our attention to this recent development.

On this basis, I have brought together some thoughts on the women who have been chosen for portrayal on the money issued by the Banks of England and Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank. (The Bank of Northern Ireland has yet to print an icon – instead, generic ‘aged’ women are depicted – more on this representation of women will follow). What became apparent was the existence of myriad competing ideologies that have been concentrated onto the small surface of a banknote.* Furthermore, the women depicted have been made prettier, more passive and more romantic and, in the case of Slessor, an agent of colonialism which encodes the superiority of the coloniser in the aesthetics of the banknote.

 * I invite comment on the ideological ambiguity of male representatives (Winston Churchill would be a good place to start), but here I am going to focus on the women who appear on banknotes.


Austen’s Ten-pound Note – Royal Bank of England

“I declare there is no enjoyment like reading!” - the epithet proposed for the Austen banknote, with the suggestion that it is the sentiment of Austen herself.

However, as anyone familiar with Austen’s works will know, it is the odious Miss Bingley, not Austen, who shares this maxim:

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ``How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.''

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement… (Pride and Prejudice, Volume 1, Ch. 11)

In other words, the episode is a masterclass in Austenian irony, highlighting female frivolity and performative genteel reading. However, the declaration is not Austen’s but her character’s. Therefore, the banknotes sublimates a female character into Austen’s own personality – at best, Miss Bingley is acting as a mouthpiece for Austen’s supposed sentiments, which denies Austen’s creativity. By implying Austen/Miss Bingley are one and the same demonstrates an inclination to assume all female voices – real and fictional – are equivalent to one another.  Alternatively, and more worrisomely, I wonder if it suggests that the Bank of England searched for a quotation that sounded worthy – a quotation that would perform as they needed. Did the Bank of England print designers read as casually and as dismissively as Miss Bingley herself, with a ‘that’ll do’ approach to searching (or Good Reads, or any other literary quotes database) for results on Austen and reading?

A further bugbear I have with this quotation on reading is that it turns a creative, lively act of writing into a more passive one of reading. Whilst the quotation could be read as Austen’s exhortation to all to read, the use of the first person suggests that her primary pleasure is reading rather than writing: a denial of the literary and creative force of Austen.  As a scholar of the long eighteenth century, it also puts me in mind of the types of criticism of reading – particularly novel reading, of course - that flourished during this period. See, for example, a letter addressed to the editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which Mr. Urban remarks:

Novels have been long and frequently regarded not as being merely useless to society, but even as pernicious, from the very indifferent morality, and ridiculous way of thinking, which they almost generally inculcate. Why then, in the name of the common sense, should such an useless and pernicious commodity, with which we are over-run, go duty-free, wile the really useful necessary of life is taxed to the utmost extent? A tax on books of this description only (for books of real utility should ever be circulated free as air) would bring in a very considerable sum for the service of Government, without being levied on the poor or the industrious. (December 1789, vol. LVII: 1048-1049)

Much the same happened to Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer, who was a great political agitator and passionate campaigner - but on the banknote is depicted in the far more sedate and feminine role of reading to prisoners.

Mary Somerville’s £10 – Royal Bank of Scotland

For Mary Somerville, we can detect more than a little ageism in the choice of image. Her bonneted, youthful face recalls a Romantic portrait of a young poetess – and the background recalls some rural idyll. Although I suppose this could suggest her skills as a geographer, which were notable, the background does not make at all clear that her major scientific discoveries where in astronomy and mathematics.  Furthermore, her more familiar image is as the older scientist: born in 1780, she did not publish her first paper until 1826, when she was 46 years old (her paper ‘The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum", published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1826) and her first book The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) came out when she was 51 years old.

Compare her image with that of the Royal Bank of Scotland edition of the banknote with Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin: austere, venerable and accompanied by the tool of his discovery, the microscope, Fleming is afforded the authority of his role.

Mary Slessor’s Ten-pound Note - Clydesdale Bank

The "Famous Scots" issue of the £10 note featuring missionary Mary Slessor was introduced in 1997, coming out significantly earlier than the Austen and Somerville banknotes. On the reverse of this note are a series of images connected to Slessor's work, including a map of the area in which she worked and a vignette showing her work with children.

As a missionary, Slessor stands apart from the archetypal nineteenth-century Christian missionary: she adopted twins to spare them from persecution, wore local dress and spoke the local language. Acting as a mediator for tribal disputes in Calabar, Nigeria, Slessor occupied a position of authority that was denied to her as a working-class woman in Scotland. On the obverse side of the banknote, Slessor occupies the traditional, authority-giving head-shot, with the site of her first employment – the mill in Dundee – in the background; on the transverse are scenes of her work in Nigeria. This design decision could suggest her journey from one place to the other, as indicated by the ship. However, the generic African scene is colonialist in a remarkably uncritical way: Slessor is literally and (it is implied) morally and economically head and shoulders above her black charges, presenting Slessor in a western hegemonic position of privilege. She is the typical colonialist here, mothering the children of Africa, whilst the map of Calabar appears as a kind of medallion, a treasure that serves to enrich (again, literally) the colonising power.

Other banknotes

Suffragist and Medical Reformer

In contrast to the ten-pound women, Elsie Inglis, whose image is issued on the heritage £50 banknote printed by the Clydesdale Bank, is not presented in a sanitised, saccharine and passive manner as Austen, Fry and Slessor are. Inglis appears determined and forthright, her dynamism and productivity clearly signalled by small signs advertising her campaign for suffrage and in the background are the medical centres in which she worked. By depicting Inglis on a £50 banknote, one could argue that there is additional value added to her image as it is the second highest value note on issue. Still, the £50 note remains a rarity. More significantly, as a major philanthropist, Inglis opened a maternity hospital for poor women and often waived the fees the women owed, or would pay for her patients to recuperate by the sea. Yet, as of 2016, the weekly job seekers’ allowance paid to a childless individual is £69.72. For a person with five or more children, it is £97.14.** Five children are not even worth the £50 on which Inglis’s image is imprinted.  I am sure that depressing irony would not be lost on Inglis.



See also:


Sir Alexander Fleming
Slessor obverse
Nan Shepherd