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Jane Austen portrait chosen for British £10 note makes her look “like a doll”

(L) Sketch of Jane Austen in 1810, (C) a 1870 portrait of Austen based on the 1810 sketch and (R) Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

(L) Sketch of Jane Austen in 1810, (C) a 1870 portrait of Austen based on the 1810 sketch and (R) Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

From 2017, Jane Austen’s image will grace British banknotes. She’ll join the likes of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith.

Give or take a few anti-feminist hecklers on Twitter, the choice of Austen has been a popular one. That’s been the easy part. Choosing how to portray Austen has been far more vexing. Jane Austen, after all, is something of British national obsession. People do not agree about who the “real” Jane Austen was, as the Bank of England has discovered.

“We heard that the bank was going to put Jane Austen on the banknote and I emailed them a portrait that we considered was suitable,” says Elizabeth Proudman, who chairs the Jane Austen Society.

There’s not much to choose from when it comes to pictures of Austen. There are a couple of purported images of the novelist. But the only undisputed contemporary portrait is a sketch from 1810, done by Austen’s sister Cassandra. Austen sits unsmiling, a little tired looking, her arms crossed.

“It’s not a particularly attractive picture,” says Proudman.

Not attractive enough, it seems, for a £10 note.

There’s another picture. It was published in a biography of Austen 60 years after the sketch. It was somewhat based on it, but jazzed up: a rounder face, no sign of fatigue, bigger eyes and a nice frilly bonnet.

“This is the best image of her we can have,” says Proudman.

And that’s what the Bank of England thinks, too. But not Austen biographer Paula Byrne.

“It’s a Victorian, highly sentimentalized makeover,” says Byrne. “She looks like a doll.”

If Jane Austen looks like a doll, what does that say about her novels? Are they really that cosy and cuddly?

“She’s a subversive writer,” says Byrne. “She’s a feminist, she writes about social class. It perpetuates this ridiculous myth about the safe Jane Austen.”

So much for agreement over putting Austen on Britain’s currency.

Still, if the late Victorians airbrushed Austen, they didn’t go nearly as far as we have. Anne Hathaway, star of the 2007 movie Becoming Jane, is as glamorous as that 1810 sketch is not.

Of course, the argument about Austen’s image isn’t just about her, or feminism. It’s also about the people that Brits choose to memorialize: upholders of power, or those who rail against it.

Jane Austen may or may not have much to do with that larger debate; alas, she’s not around to chime in. It’s a good thing, really, that she created characters who have lived on, and been re-interpreted time and again — in Britain and far beyond.


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An Australian Dictionary Redefines Misogyny

Australian Conservative Party Leader Tony Abbott, accused of “misogyny”

In politics, words can take on new meanings in the blink of an eye. The phrase “binders full of women” had zero currency before the second Obama-Romney debate. Now it’s what many people remember as the debate’s takeaway moment, full of perceived meaning about women, power and the workplace.

In Australia, another word has become caught up in a political storm over the role of women in society and politics. It was uttered—several times—by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny,” Gillard told the Australian parliament.

That was the start of a speech that has rapidly become famous around the globe, thanks to YouTube.

Gillard was defending her government, which had been accused of protecting the speaker of the house, who’d been caught using sexist language in text messages.

Rather than talk about that case, Gillard turned the tables on her government’s accusers, specifically Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.

“The Leader of the Opposition says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” said Gillard. “I hope the Leader of the Opposition…is writing out his resignation.”

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” she contined, “he needs a mirror.”

Gillard’s opponents didn’t take kindly to this speech. More than a few objected to her use of the word misogyny. They said that was going too far, much farther than the word “sexism.”

Sexism, they pointed out, means discrimination based on a person’s sex. But misogyny means intense dislike and mistrust of women.

That’s what the dictionaries say. For the time being at least.

Sue Butler, who is editor of the best-known dictionary of Australian English, the Macquarie Dictionary, said it’s time to update the definition of misogyny. After watching Gillard’s speech, Butler and her fellow editors wondered about their dictionary’s definition of misogyny.

Like most other dictionaries, the Macquarie Dictionary used a definition “that had been standard for some centuries”: the hatred of women.

But Butler and her team of editors didn’t think that Gillard was using the word quite like that. She wasn’t accusing Abbott of a “pathological hatred of women.” The accusation was more of a “common garden prejudice against women, particularly women in positions of power.”

Butler’s team tracked the evolving meaning of misogyny back to 1970s feminist discourse in the United States, where it was often used as a synonym for sexism; a synonym “with a bit more bite to it perhaps,” said Butler. “But still in the same range of meaning of entrenched prejudice.”

And so the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have announced that they will be updating their definition of misogyny to reflect the way it has evolved in recent decades.

That’s only enraged Prime Minister Gillard’s political opponents for a second time. They say the dictionary’s editors are letting Gillard off the hook, rather than forcing her take responsibility for her hyperbole.

To which Macquarie editor Sue Butler shrugged, and pointed out that many words change their meanings over time.

But what of the statements made by Australia’s Conservative leader Tony Abbott—the very statements that Gillard was calling “misogyny”?

Abbott once wondered whether it was a bad thing that men have more power than women, and suggested that men might be more “adapted to exercise authority.”

And then there were his personal attacks on Julia Gillard.

Gillard told MPs she was offended when Abbott stood next signs that said “Ditch the Witch” and one that called her “a man’s bitch.”

It almost makes the Obama-Romney debate, repeatedly described in the US news media as “feisty,” seem friendly.



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