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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Short or long, but not by Austen

As a newspaper reporter many years ago, I heard New Jersey’s then-commissioner of education give a speech featuring a self-deprecating reference to Voltaire. According to the commissioner, the great French philosopher once wrote to a friend, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

Hmm, I thought. I’ve always heard that line attributed to George Bernard Shaw. I Googled. I found attributions to Shaw. And also to Voltaire. And also to Mark Twain. And also to Blaise Pascal. No one seemed to know for sure. I sent my findings along to the commissioner, suggesting he might want to drop the Voltaire reference.

Next time I heard him speak, he said, “As the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote to a friend, ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. . .’ ”

So much for the power of the press.

I recalled this incident the other day, when my Google alert for Jane Austen tossed up this Q&A from the Harvard Business Review – not usually a fount of Austen references -- on the best way to use Twitter in a crisis.

“I think it was Jane Austen who first said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time to write a short letter so I’ll write you a long one,’” suggested interviewer Sarah Green Carmichael.

Well, that was easy: not only was Austen not the first to say it, she never said it at all. (Add this one to the oh-so-long list of spurious Austen quotes floating around in cyberspace.) But, I wondered, who was the first to say it?

Luckily, in the years since I first took a desultory stab at answering this question, the Gods of the Internet have brought us a far more dedicated researcher in the form of Garson O’Toole, aka the Quote Investigator, who has nailed this one with admirable thoroughness.

The winner? Blaise Pascal, 1657 – 118 years before Jane Austen’s birth. But O’Toole also documents similar remarks by a host of other famous people in the centuries following Pascal. Not Jane Austen, though. And also not Voltaire.

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