When the Bank of England announced last month its intention to portray Jane Austen on its ten-pound note, it seemed the most uncontroversial of choices. Who better than Austen to stand as a representative of female accomplishment? Many of the female historical figures that might have been chosen were shocking in their time: consider Mary Wollstonecraft and Florence Nightingale. And most still have an air of scandal about them, their subsequent canonization notwithstanding. Among literary figures, the Bank of England did not choose to honor Charlotte Brontë, whose unparalleled heroine, Jane Eyre, declares herself “a free human being with an independent will.” Nor did they choose George Eliot, the author of the single greatest English novel, “Middlemarch,” whose adoption of a masculine pseudonym may, for her contemporaries, have gone some way toward mitigating the unsettling fact of her towering intellectual superiority over most, if not all, of her male peers.
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