Deborah Yaffe

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Lucky thirteen?

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2018 01:00PM

Name the ten most important vegetables! Quick now! Does broccoli outrank kale? How about carrots vs. turnips? Yes, yes, I know they’re all terribly good for your health and all that, but which is the most important?


This ridiculous exercise came to mind last week as I perused the BBC History Magazine’s mystifying list of “100 Women Who Changed the World” – a list on which Jane Austen comes in at #13, well behind Marie Curie (#1) and Margaret Thatcher (#6) but ahead of Princess Diana (#15), someone with whomJane Austen could hardly have less in common.


The rankings were decided by magazine readers working with a field of one hundred nominees selected by ten expert panelists -- journalists, writers and academics, all of them British by citizenship or residence. So you can blame the experts for some of the crazy, although, to be fair, everyone involved probably knew this enterprise was going to be, at best, the spur to some entertaining dinner-table arguments and, at worst, pretty silly all around.


Still, it’s hard to ignore the sheer weirdness of trying to weigh the relative importance of groundbreaking scientific discoveries, pioneering artistic endeavors and fearless political leadership. Rutabaga vs. grapefruit, anyone?


Although the list aims at inclusivity by featuring a smattering of the non-white and non-Western, its bias is still endearingly overt: Apparently, at least thirty-two of the one hundred most world-changing women in all of human history – and at least seventeen of the top twenty-five! – were British. (“We’ve been punching above our weight for centuries,” insists my British husband, tongue firmly planted in cheek.)


The most fascinating thing about Austen’s appearance on the list, though, only becomes apparent when you drill down on the magazine’s web site to the work of the original nominators, each charged with selecting leaders in a single field, such as sports, politics or science.


Turns out that the literature panelist – journalist Andrew Dickson, author of a book on Shakespeare’s reception history – didn’t actually choose Austen for his list. George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley, yes; Austen, no.


Our Jane made it into the running via a different route, chosen by “media & culture” panelist Jenni Murray, a journalist and broadcaster. Murray’s list also includes two of Austen’s literary predecessors, Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney, as well as three painters, three musicians and fashion designer Coco Chanel.


Nothing could make clearer Austen’s peculiar status today. She’s not just a towering literary figure, like Eliot, or the embodiment of a major artistic movement, like Woolf; she’s a cultural personality, someone who is not simply a creator of particular works but the symbol of a particular set of ideas or attitudes.


I take it back: She’s got more in common with Princess Diana than I thought.


2 comments
Aug 13 2018 02:13PM by Mags

Yes, but Murray also picking Burney and Behn speaks well for her choices. They were both pioneers in literature. She did well putting Jane Austen in their company.

Aug 13 2018 10:08PM by dyaffe

Oh, yeah: her choices are appropriate and defensible. I was just amused/intrigued by the categorization. . .

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