Last year we published Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain in which she described the myriad ways books, journals, and paper were put to use. We asked her to explain the kerfuffle over the Jane Austen 10 pound note, and of course, the discussion took an Austen-like turn toward marriage…
Feminists were relieved when the Bank of England caved in to a petition demanding a woman’s face on at least one of its many banknotes. And novel-lovers were even more elated when the face chosen was Jane Austen’s. But jeers are now greeting the Bank’s decision to caption Austen’s portrait with a quotable quote from Pride and Prejudice, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
What’s not to like? Well, for one thing that quotation emerges from the mouth of the novel’s least likeable character, Elizabeth Bennet’s dim-witted would-be rival Caroline Bingley. When Darcy picks up Volume I of an unnamed book, Caroline immediately sticks her nose in Volume II; her “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.” Darcy ignores her attempts to read over his shoulder (he’s not up for one set of Buddhist marriage vows, recently chronicled in the pages of the New York Times, which included a promise never to read alone and never to turn the page without waiting for the other partner to finish). Bored by her book and stymied by his absorption in his, she declares with a yawn, “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!”
John Mullan is surely right to complain that this is the kind of quotation a Bank of England governor (or some overeducated and underpaid intern) would have found if they google-searched “reading” without bothering to read the novel. They might not even have needed to do that; the line appears in countless online and offline quotation dictionaries, of the kind over which Elizabeth’s schoolmarmish sister Mary likes to pore and from which Elizabeth’s repulsive suitor Mr. Collins cribs his commonplaces. But does this really mean that the quotation is wrong for a banknote?
Maybe. But it’s also possible that the quotation tells us something important about the relation between books and money. Miss Bingley adds that “When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Talking about books functions as a way to drag marriage into the conversation (for “having a house of my own” is nothing of not a modest euphemism for “getting someone to marry me”)—as it does, too, when she professes herself astonished “that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr Darcy!”
Books, in short, are what rich husbands own. More specifically, like the gallery of family portraits that Elizabeth later ogles in Darcy’s house, a private library is a sign of old money. Nouveaux riches like the Bingleys can rent a house, but they can’t buy up first editions simply by handing over Bank of England notes, any more than they could buy up nonexistent portraits of their ancestors. And a shared library means a shared life: it’s safe to interfile books when you move in with your lover, but don’t put your duplicates out on the curb unless you’re game for covenant marriage.
More fundamentally, books are a player in the marriage market. Reading different volumes of the same novel gives Miss Bingley and Darcy something in common, just as anyone reading Sense and Sensibility can guess Marianne Dashwood’s fate once she reflects that “Our own library is too well known to me, to be resorted to for anything beyond mere amusement. But … there are others of more modern production which I know I can borrow of Colonel Brandon.” In a culture that placed strict limits on young women’s interactions with young men, lending books and borrowing books gave a convenient excuse to send parcels back and forth: “Gentlemen, as a rule, do not offer ladies presents,” one 1893 etiquette handbook explains. “Should the conversation, however, turn upon some new book or musical composition, which the lady has not seen, the gentleman may, with perfect propriety, say, “I wish that you could see such or such a work and, if you will permit, I should be pleased to send you a copy.”
That books can matchmake shouldn’t surprise users of dating sites like alikewise.com, who are matched with one another by favorite title rather than by body-mass index: who needs Mrs. Bennet when a book can perform the introduction? But the book can also chaperone: a different Victorian etiquette manual explains that in railway carriages, while “civilities should be politely acknowledged,” “a book is the safest resource for an ‘unprotected female’.” Or, as when Darcy buries himself in the pages of Volume I to avoid making conversation with the persistent Miss Bingley, an unprotected male.
Perhaps Darcy is afraid of ending up in a marriage like the one described by the great Victorian humorist Douglas Jerrold: “Why, what have you got there, Mr. Caudle ? A book? What! If you ar’n’t allowed to sleep you’ll read? Well, now it is come to something! If that isn’t insulting a wife to bring a book to bed, I don’t know what wedlock is. But you sha’n’t read, Caudle ; no you sha’n’t; not while I’ve strength to get up and put out a candle.” When Charles Darwin drew up a balance-sheet to help him decide whether to marry, one of the entries in the “not marry” column suggested that a man needed to choose between marrying and reading: “Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—less money for books.” One more reason that it may make sense to immortalize Caroline Bingley on a banknote: she knew that books aren’t free, any more than the time that it takes to read them.
Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel and How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain.