Deborah Yaffe

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Mis-Remembrance

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 16 2015 02:00PM

See, this is why it’s a problem -- as I’ve written so many, many times before (for instance: here, here and here) – that the Internet is choked with faux-Jane Austen quotes. Because it leads to sad little items like this one:


A retired Canadian police officer and peacekeeping veteran, speaking last week at a ceremony for Remembrance Day, Canada’s version of Veterans Day, told his audience: "One hundred years before the start of World War I, Jane Austen wrote in her ageless book Sense and Sensibility, 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do'. . . . Jane Austen's words are as poignant today as when they were published. We are still defined by what we do.”


So here’s the problem: Jane Austen’s ageless book Sense and Sensibility doesn’t contain those words, no matter how many web sites claim the contrary. In fact, that line comes from Andrew Davies’ screen adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which hit the airwaves in 2008, ninety-four years after the start of World War I.


But not even that is quite true: After attributing the line to Davies through umpteen blog posts, I finally went back to the tape to double-check. And, in fact, the line is not only faux Austen, it’s also garbled Davies: his Marianne Dashwood, chastened by her near-death experience, says to Elinor, “It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do, or fail to do.”


Why do people keep attributing this sort-of-Davies quote to Jane Austen? Because citing a Certifiably Great Writer as the source of a semi-noble sentiment confers unearned gravitas. “As Jane Austen wrote” puts a stamp of authority on a statement that, when you get right down to it, essentially means “Actions speak louder than words.”


But there’s nothing wrong with the line, in any of its iterations. Go ahead, Mr. Canadian Veteran – point out that actions speak louder than words! Exhort your audience to service and gratitude! I’m with you all the way! But please, please: couldn’t we leave Jane Austen out of it?


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