Despite having read several biographies of Jane Austen (as well as every bit of her writing I could get my hands on and countless pieces of fan fiction based on said writings) over the years, I never expected to draft a Surprising Facts entry about her.
Her official biography as the unmarried daughter of the Reverend George Austen is many things — but terribly surprising is not one of them. The Austen family has worked hard to achieve the image we have today of a serene, peaceful Aunt Jane.
Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra burned many of Jane’s letters after Jane died, and censored those she did not destroy. The descendants of Admiral Frances Austen, Jane’s brother, burned still more. It seems likely that whatever surprising facts might once have existed would have been swept away by the Austen family house-cleaning.
But this Christmas, I received a copy of Sheryl Craig’s Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. Inside the timeline that opens the book I discovered a tremendously surprising fact indeed.
Paper money was introduced in England just 16 years before Jane Austen was born in 1775. Before gold shortages caused by the Seven Years War forced the Bank of England to introduce the first paper £10 pound note in 1859, most people had to carry around bags of heavy coins to do their shopping.
The extremely wealthy of course, were somewhat familiar with the concept of using paper as a proxy for coins. The goldsmith-bankers who guarded their piles of gold guineas had been issuing running cash notes recording their deposits (and exchanging those cash notes for gold) since the 16th century.
But in an economy where the average working man made only £30 a year, accepting a slip of paper in exchange for depositing large sums of gold at the local goldsmith-banker was hardly common practice. The average Briton regarded paper money with deep suspicion for many years after its introduction. After all, unlike golden guineas and silver shillings, paper money had no intrinsic value of its own, only the word of the issuing bank that they would honor it.
In a domestic economy plagued by unpredictable harvest failures, a completely unregulated banking industry, and devastating stock speculations like the 1720 South Sea Bubble stock scandal, the word of the relatively new Bank of England was not widely trusted. Its paper bills were considered to be little better than I.O.Us. People who received them exchanged them for coins as quickly as they could. Many people wouldn’t accept paper bills at all. Large debts had to be paid in golden guineas instead.
Can you imagine?
Our most fundamental method of payment was still an unproven way of doing business for Jane Austen’s grandparents, neighbors, and the local vicar. I can just imagine Jane Austen rolling her eyes at the dinner table while her grandfather talked about the new-fangled paper money with the same mixture of wariness and awe that I express in conversations about Apple Pay.
Bonus Surprising Facts:
- The venerable Lloyd’s of London was a mere four years old when Jane Austen was born in 1775, and didn’t yet have what we would think of as an office. Its regular place of business was still Lloyd’s coffeehouse.
- Copper pennies were introduced in Britain in 1797, when Jane Austen was 22. Before then they used pennies made of silver. Unfortunately, the value of the silver used to manufacture the pennies quickly became worth more than the pennies themselves. At first, the British mint simply made the pennies smaller and smaller. But in 1660, the mint decided that making tiny silver pennies was no longer a viable option. They stopped making silver pennies for general circulation, and began issuing them only around Easter time for the royal family to use as Maundy money (money the royal family would give to the elderly as alms on Maundy Thursday). Although the Maundy money was legal tender, very few of the folks who received the silver pennies used them to buy their daily bread. After all, the silver used to make a Maundy penny was worth much more than a penny’s worth of goods from the local market.
Sheryl Craig. Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.