Jane Austen could only celebrate her success with those closest to her. She received no public recognition and would never know just how popular she was to become.
In 2012, I was nominated for the Telstra Business Women of the Year Awards in Australia. I had relocated to Melbourne for work in 2008 and was living on the outskirts of the city. I had been nominated for the award by a business associate, and I had already completed an extensive questionnaire about my background, career and work achievements—I didn’t mention Jane Austen or Chawton. My boss and other colleagues had provided references, and I was one of eighteen finalists selected from 4,500 nominations. I was interviewed by a panel of judges, and I reflected on the years since my first marketing role in the United Kingdom. I had since become the CEO of Australia’s largest food-sampling and product-demonstration agency, responsible for over 1,500 staff, and a board director of two not-for-profit organisations.
The awards gala lunch was to be held at the glittering Crown Entertainment Complex on the Yarra River in the centre of Melbourne. I was honoured to be a finalist. As I walked up to the stage to collect my plaque, I thought about Jane and wondered what she would have thought. What might she have achieved if she had had the same opportunities? In Jane’s time, women were not encouraged to participate in commercial pursuits, and there I was, taking part in a high-profile national awards scheme that celebrated and publicised the success of women in business.
The novels published in Jane’s lifetime didn’t even identify her as the author—they were written by ‘A Lady’. By the end of Jane’s life, many in the local community were said to have known she was the mystery authoress, and she probably enjoyed a little praise and recognition from her neighbours. Jane’s achievements were far greater than mine, but Jane was able to celebrate her success with only those closest to her; there were no awards, no public recognition, or speeches to write.
Like Jane, I worked in the minority—only fifteen per cent of board positions in Australia in 2012 were held by women. I was keenly aware of the sexism often inherent in the culture and structure of corporate businesses. But while fifteen per cent is a small proportion of the total, many women had come before me, and although it could be challenging, it was a well-trodden path. There had been other women writers that Jane could look to for lessons and inspiration, and Jane had had the support of her immediate family. But she had not had access to the wide range of resources that I had been able to draw on. I had been university educated and supported by mentors, a professional coach, management and leadership publications, courses and online resources. I had listened to Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and networked with many women and men who had overcome extraordinary setbacks to succeed.
Jane must have been aware that she was a success. Her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, were well-reviewed. She was sought out by the best London publisher, John Murray. Not many writers would have been asked to dedicate a novel to the Prince Regent, nor invited to view his library. It’s a pity Jane didn’t know just how popular her novels would become.
I can’t really explain how excited I was on 24 July 2013 when the Governor of the Bank of England announced Jane Austen as the face of the next ten-pound note from 2017—the bicentennial of her death. I couldn’t quite believe it and checked a number of news sources, including the BBC: ‘Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes. Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognised as one of the greatest writers in English literature,’ the Governor said. I was speechless. Jane—our Jane—had become so revered that she was going to feature on British currency. I couldn’t think of a higher honour than this and was ecstatic. I immediately called my family in England and we cheered with delight.
The new bank note was launched this week, on the anniversary of Jane’s death, at a ceremony at Winchester Cathedral. Despite the controversy over the imagery and quote that has been used, it is beautiful and great-aunt Jane has finally received the ‘award’ she deserves.
Caroline Jane Knight is the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote. Caroline is the author of Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, available in paperback, hardback, e-book and audiobook at all good online retailers