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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sourcing and citation

Earlier this month, a man from the Maryland suburbs sent a letter to the Washington Post. “When I was reading Colbert I. King’s July 29 op-ed ‘Why do car thieves, porch pirates and shoplifters feel so welcome in D.C.?’ ” wrote Charles W. Walton of Takoma Park, “a Jane Austen quote came to mind.”

Uh-oh, I thought.

Because all too often, when a Jane Austen quote comes to mind, it turns out—as here--that said quote is not, in fact, by Jane Austen.

From time to time, as regular blog readers know, I amuse myself by pointing out such online misattributions. I like to believe this record-correction is a modest form of Janeite community service--albeit a Sisyphean one, given the vastness of the internet and its denizens’ equally vast lack of interest in elementary fact-checking. But one does what one can.

Typically, Austenian misquoting takes one of two forms: attributing lines from Austen screen adaptations to Austen herself; or distorting the meaning of genuine Austen quotes by ripping them out of context. But lately, I’ve run across a third category of misattribution: claiming an Austenian provenance for quotes that bear absolutely no relation to Jane Austen.

Consider a few examples:

You’ll find this “Jane Austen quote” all over the internet. It’s on It’s #44 on Quotefancy’s (exhausting, frequently inaccurate) list of “Top 500 Jane Austen Quotes.” Five years ago, it even made the @AustenDaily Twitter account, supposedly composed entirely of quotes from Austen’s novels and letters.

Luckily, the genuine source of this quotation isn’t hard to unearth—plenty of other places on the internet will give you the right answer. Drumroll, please: These words are a condensed and slightly edited version of two sentences in a 1916 letter from Carl Jung to his patient Fanny Bowditch.

Don’t believe me? Check out this 2022 blog post, properly footnoted and, for good measure, headed by a photo of the actual printed page (from Volume I of the Princeton University Press edition of Jung’s letters), on which these words appear. That, boys and girls, is what we call a citation. It’s a good idea to have one in hand before you go around attributing quotes to Jane Austen.

2. “Our scars make us know that our past was for real.”

Except be sure that your citation isn’t as made-up as the words you’re referencing, since multiple internet sites have (falsely) claimed to identify the exact Austen novel from which this “Jane Austen quote” allegedly comes.

It’s one of “9 Pride And Prejudice Quotes That Will Leave Your Heart Happy,” wellness blog PuckerMob informs us. It’s on the list of “Memorable Quotes from Pride and Prejudice,” according to Literary Ladies Guide, described as an archive of classic women writers. It’s among the “10 mind-blowing quotes from 'Pride and Prejudice' every Nigerian can relate to,” says the online platform Pulse Ghana.

There’s only one problem with all these lists, as a simple text search proves: The word “scars,” let alone the entire quote, does not appear anywhere in Pride and Prejudice (or, indeed, in any of Austen’s six completed novels).

But fear not: a version of this quote does have a distinguished literary pedigree: “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real,” one character says to another in Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling and critically acclaimed 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses. Using Amazon’s “Look inside the book” function, you can find it on page 135 of this edition. See? Citation.

But it wasn’t either of these “Jane Austen quotes” that Mr. Walton of Takoma Park claims came to mind as he read about car thieves and porch pirates in the Washington Post. It was this one:

3. “Manners is what holds a society together. At bottom, propriety is concern for other people. When that goes out the window, the gates of hell are shortly opened, and ignorance is king.”

This “Jane Austen quote” seems marginally less ubiquitous online, though you will find it on Goodreads, and back at Quotefancy, and (via Google Books) referenced in passing on page 75 of an educational methodology book called Teaching Social Issues in the Middle Grades. (And now, of course, on the Washington Post’s website.)

Needless to say, these lines are not by Jane Austen, who knew enough grammar to give “manners” a plural verb and never, as far as I can recall, used the locution “goes out the window.” In fairness, however, I must acknowledge that it is not quite as clearcut an example of a quote that has absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen—because, in its genuine context, it is about Jane Austen.

Some twenty-two minutes into the 2018 Netflix movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as the eponymous World War II-era book club meets, Eben (played by Tom Courtenay) is reporting on Northanger Abbey. In deliberate mockery of the snoring German soldier sent to monitor the proceedings, Eben says, “Jane Austen knew whereof she spoke, and she spoke most elegantly. Manners is what holds a society together--that, and a reliable postal service. At bottom, propriety is concern for other people. When that goes out the window, the gates of hell are shortly opened, and ignorance is king.”

In context, it’s not clear if Eben is quoting Austen or merely summarizing his interpretation of her views, and his words do not appear in Northanger Abbey, or any other Austen novel. (Or, indeed, in the novel on which the movie is based. The speech is an invention of screenwriters Don Roos, Kevin Hood, and Thomas Bezucha.)

Curiously enough, Netflix’s English subtitles for the movie put quotation marks around the lines that the internet wrongly attributes to Austen herself, which may provide a partial answer to the big question: How did corners of the internet come to wrongly attribute lines from a pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst, or an American post-apocalyptic novelist, or a slightly soppy romantic melodrama set in the Channel Islands, to one of the giants of English literature?

Maybe someone with more technical expertise than I possess could track the misattributions back through earlier and earlier versions of the internet, eventually unearthing the original sin of misquotation. If you’re that tech-savvy Janeite, please--go for it.

Meanwhile, however, I'll keep on rolling that rock up the hill. As the ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Tarfon is said to have remarked--I thought it was Rabbi Hillel, but I checked the sources--“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

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