IN her crimped cap, the old-fashioned face of Jane Austen will soon be in our wallets and purses. The new £10 Bank of England notes, which were revealed yesterday on the 200th anniversary of her death, won’t be in circulation for several weeks, but for those of us who consider her one of the greatest writers of all time, it is enough to know she has been paid tribute.

Poor Charles Darwin’s portrait has been replaced by the Regency novelist, to the chagrin of some. While he enlightened us about the origins of the species, you could argue that she did as valuable a service by illuminating the nature of the species. Yet while her elevation to the ranks of polymer currency marks a long overdue acknowledgement of female talent, the number of women gracing our money is still pitifully scant.

The Royal Bank of Scotland put writer Nan Shepherd on our fivers last year, and astronomical high-flier Mary Somerville, a contemporary of Austen, is to appear on our tenners. There was much fanfare for these decisions, yet although we have already honoured missionary Mary Slessor and the little-known contemporary chemist Janet Mullan in this manner, forgive me if I don’t get too excited about what is more a drip-feed than a deluge.

This, however, is not the time to bemoan the scarcity of women found crumpled in our handbags and washed-out in our tumble-dried jeans. Better, perhaps, to ask what, if anything, a woman who was alive two centuries ago has to say to women – and men – today. When Austen was writing, the world was unimaginably different.

Nevertheless, one of the remarkable aspects of her novels is not only the brilliance and economy of her style, but its freshness. A handful of 19th century writers have a claim to being as gifted, but few have withstood changing tastes, and the passage of history, as she has. Something of this timeless spirit reaches down through the years, and allows her outlook to speak to us even now. In literary terms, of course, relevance is irrelevant. The writing is all that counts. In terms of Austen’s newly prestigious position, however, it matters.

What she stood for is strikingly modern: a woman who, for a variety of reasons, did not marry, and pursued her vocation with single-minded dedication.

In her day, not “catching” a husband was a mark of shame, not merely in terms of social attainment, but because it signified the prospect of hardship or even penury in later life. Women today who are unlucky in love, or have no desire to be shackled, could do worse than look to Austen for inspiration. If they enjoy even a fraction of her satisfaction and skill in their pursuits, they can consider themselves fortunate indeed.

Glitzy, overwrought dramatisations of Austen’s novels might lead you to think her books are the precursor of Mills & Boon. One cannot deny that love, romance and desire run through them, but they are much more steely than that. Austen had a gimlet eye for the way her highly stratified, strait-jacketed social circle worked. Marriage was as much a fiscal as a sentimental contract, and her tales are filled with men and women who compromise, willingly, or wistfully, in the name of commonsense.

There is a tartness to Austen’s perceptions that suggests a mind that was neither conventional, nor sugary. How many of us could do with an injection of that?

For a woman of her class to question the manners and morals of the aristocracy, laugh at the pious, and poke fun at the pompous, was almost as revolutionary as the sans-culottes. In my own generation, a young woman who dared mock authority, or challenge rules and shibboleths, was quickly rebuked. How much more daring and risky to be so bold in Austen’s mealy-mouthed, hidebound age.

Added to which, this parson’s daughter was emphatically worldly, and offers not a word of religious cant or superstition. Equally surprising, characters depicted as bookworms, with the possible exception of Mr Knightley, are rarely cast in a good light. In Pride & Prejudice alone, Mr Bennett, always retreating to his library, is a wise fool; young Mary, who spouts from her ill-digested tomes, is a prig; and Caroline Bingley, whose words are quoted on the bank note – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading” – casts aside whatever she is reading as soon as a more exciting diversion comes into sight.

The air-brushed portrait of Austen that we’ll soon all own should act as a reminder of what it cost to pursue her talent: courage, self-belief, hard graft and grit.

That her books still have currency is a reflection of their clarity of thought and expression. And unlike the £10 note, they are priceless.