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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Another brick in the wall

Was it just last month that I was pointing out the folly of banging my head against the brick wall of inaccurate Austen quotation? Yes, it was – but another brick wall has arisen before me, and so a-banging I must go. Of all the places you’d think you could rely on to eschew merchandise emblazoned with mislabeled, paraphrased, or downright faux Austen quotes, you’d think the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, would be one. But no. For here come the six iterations of the “Exclusive Jane Austen Quote Mug,” each featuring “a teatime-appropriate quote from one of her famous works.” And here they are: 1. "You must drink tea with us." (Pride and Prejudice) No, actually that’s the importunate Sir John Middleton, in chapter 18 of Sense and Sensibility. 2. "A little tea if you please, sir, by and bye." (Emma) Quite right – Miss Bates at the Crown ball, in chapter 38. 3. "I am half agony, half hope." (Persuasion) Yes, of course – The Letter, chapter 23. But “teatime appropriate”? Must be a more exciting tea party than the ones I’m usually invited to. 4. “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” (Northanger Abbey) Indeed – Catherine Morland’s “excellent satire on modern language” in chapter 16. 5. "Life is just a quick succession of busy nothings." (Mansfield Park) Well, a version of this phrase does appear in chapter 10, as the visit to Sotherton is wrapping up, but this quote isn’t quite accurate. Austen wrote, “It was a quick succession of busy nothings till the carriage came to the door,” which doesn’t have the Olympian ring that the mug-makers seem to prefer. 6. “It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” (Sense and Sensibility) That sound you hear is the shattering of my head as it connects with brick once again. By now, it doesn’t seem to matter that this quote appears nowhere at all in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility. The Internet Truthiness Quote Machine has attributed so many versions of it to Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility that the demurrals from those of us who know it’s actually from Andrew Davies’ screenplay for the 2008 TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility* cannot be heard above the low hum of approval from the tea towel-weavers, magnet-manufacturers, greeting card-printers, and Pinterest pinners. So the tally, out of a possible six: three correct, and correctly attributed, quotes; one entirely correct quote attributed to the wrong novel; one half-incorrect quote attributed to the right novel; and one quote that Jane Austen never wrote. Shouldn’t the Jane Austen Centre do better than this?

* But see here for more details.


Sep 17 2014 11:56PM by A. Marie

To answer your concluding question: It should, but it probably won't. I was considerably underwhelmed by my visit to the JA Centre in 2009--it struck me then as oriented to fans of the film/TV adaptations rather than readers of the works--and nothing I've seen or heard from the Centre since then has altered my first impression. (I must guiltily add, however, that I purchased a large black lace fan at the Centre's gift shop and have been attempting to practice the "language of the fan" with it ever since.) See you at the JASNA AGM in Montreal, I hope!

Sep 17 2014 11:38PM by Deborah Yaffe

Yeah, the JA Centre wasn't really to my taste, either, but it's probably the perfect place to buy a fan! And I will be in Montreal, so hope to see you then.

Feb 8 2016 06:13PM by Barbara Laughlin Adler

Thank you for this list and the confirmation that the "say or think" quote is not from Austen. I knew it didn't sound right. Some years ago I contacted the Jane Austen Centre to let them know they had Mr. Darcy's words wrong on a coffee mug - they had "In vain I have struggled." Austen's actual words of course were "In vain have I struggled." The JA Centre replied to me and said they would take care of it, but that mug still appeared in their shop for the next 2 or 3 years.

Feb 8 2016 07:27PM by Deborah Yaffe

Yes, it's an uphill battle trying to stamp out faux Austen quotes. I'm glad to have your help in the struggle. :-)

Feb 8 2016 07:32PM by Deborah Yaffe

P.S. And there's actually a bit more to be said about that faux-S&S quote. See my later blog post here:

May 18 2017 05:21PM by Jacob

Thank you! I'm so glad to have found this - Having read and seen the series, I quite liked the "but what we do" quote. I run a cross stitch company (Modern Folk Embroidery, if you're curious), and made a cross-stitch pattern with it, and whilst doing research I got this niggling feeling that it might not be a JA quote despite what the internet is telling me on hundreds of quote pages... So searched the manuscript for the quote, checked all her books, only to find I couldn't find it! I'm glad I'm not crazy. Sadly, nobody seems to do any proper research or fact checking any more before publishing. I have done one other Jane Austen sampler before (Tenderness of Heart: A Jane Austen Sampler), and know for a fact that that one is at least a correct quote from Emma! :)

May 19 2017 09:04PM by Deborah Yaffe

This is one of my perennial themes: the utter sloppiness of the internet's quote factories (at least when it comes to Jane Austen). At this point, correcting these errors is about as easy as holding back the sea -- not that this keeps me from trying, periodically! I'm not sure why no one ever bothers to check; I guess it's some combination of sheer laziness, unwarranted trust in the Internet's hive mind, and an irritating beiief that "Jane Austen" is a catchall term signifying any book, movie or other property with some vague Austenian connection. Drives me crazy, but I'm glad I played a small role in helping you to avoid becoming another casualty!

May 30 2018 04:32AM by Deb

Thank you for the clarification. Saw the BBC movie and noticed the quote. Just saw the quote on "Good Reads Quotes." One would think this site would check the quotes it attributes. Secondly, they misquote the movie, which is actually, "It isn't what say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do... or fail to do."

May 30 2018 01:59PM by Deborah Yaffe

I think Goodreads quotes are put together by Goodreads readers, not by the site, so accuracy is up to the individual quoter. And you're right that the movie line is itself often misquoted, as I discussed here:

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