LONDON (Reuters) - Author Jane Austen is "waiting in the wings" to become the next famous Briton to be honoured on the country's banknotes, outgoing Bank of England governor Mervyn King said.
The writer of 19th century classics such as "Pride & Prejudice", "Sense & Sensibility" and "Emma" is already a "reserve" figure whose image could be a clear candidate to replace that of naturalist Charles Darwin on the 10-pound note when his time is up, King said on Tuesday.
The announcement potentially defuses criticisms of a future lack of female figures on the currency, which have been levelled at the central bank since it said in April that wartime leader Winston Churchill would feature on the five-pound note from 2016, replacing prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.
Churchill and Darwin will complement economist Adam Smith and steam engine inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt to complete the all-male line-up - other than the image of the Queen on the overleaf.
The monarch is on one side of each of Britain's four denominations of bank notes, while celebrated Britons take their turn for 10 to 20-year stints on the other side.
Austen would be a well-known and likely popular choice. Her novels of romance among the Regency gentry, spiced with sharp social comment, still regularly feature on bestseller and literature course reading lists, and have spawned numerous period-drama TV shows and film adaptations.
Historical women figures should be chosen as individuals rather than for their gender, King said at his final appearance as governor before parliament's Treasury Committee.
"One thing which we are quite determined to avoid is any suggestion that the five pound note in some sense be reserved for women," he said.
The notes featuring Fry would continue to circulate for some time and although the final decision as to the identity of the next figure would be one for the incoming governor, Canadian Mark Carney, it was unlikely that there would be a time when there were no females, King said.
"I think it is extremely unlikely that we should ever find ourselves in the position where there are no women among the historical figures on our banknotes.
"Jane Austen is quietly waiting in the wings."
(Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien and Li-mei Hoang)