The Perils of Quotation

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!

These are the words that are to appear under the portrait of Jane Austen on the UK’s £10 note. A great sentiment, you might think, very apt in these days when television, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, games are ruining the young and they don’t even know how to read, and if they do they only read rubbish, when I was their age I’d already read the complete works of Shakespeare in three languages and knew the whole of Paradise Lost by heart, and . . .  Well, you know how it goes.

Now, here’s the thing. Jane Austen didn’t say ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ As William Germano reminds us here, they’re the words she put into the mouth of Caroline Bingley, when she’s trying to impress Mr Darcy. This is perfectly clear when the speech is read in context:

Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement . . .

These are not the words of a devoted reader of fine literature. Rather, they are the words of a parvenue, a poser, a wannabe, but most of those with the notes in their wallets won’t know that. As a professor of English literature, Germano may well appreciate the picture drawn of ‘Caroline Bingley’s insincere praise of reading’, and see that ‘behind her character’s vacuousness is Austen’s own sincerity—cool, ironic, and more complex than one might expect for a writer as inexhaustibly popular as she.’ But if they are read, as they no doubt will be, as Jane Austen’s own words, rather than as part of her cynical portrayal of a shallow and scheming woman, their use in this way will fail to do her justice. Those who chose them for our tenner no doubt did so with the best of intentions. It’s just a pity they didn’t bother to read the passage from which they’re taken.



Filed under Literature, Politics

8 responses to “The Perils of Quotation

  1. Well, a small transgression compared with notables on US bills and coins, which feature three slaveholders ($1 and 25 cent coin, $2 and 5 cent coin, and $20 bill); adulterers (on the $2, $10, and $100 for certain); one bastard (on the $10, unless you include behavior as well, then the $20 as well); racists (various, though there is some degree of interpretation to sort them out); an alcoholic general (the $50); and the greatest president (on a $5 bill, and 1 cent coin), who is forced to share such sad company.

    On the coins with notables other than those on the bills, are two adulterers (10 cent and 50 cent coins), though one, arguably, was among the top presidents for his leadership during the Great Depression and WWII.

    You’ll notice some notables were involved in many dubious behaviors!


  2. I think I could live with adulterers, bastards and alcoholics, but slaveholders and racists deserve no honours.


    • If we are to exclude racists, then we have no time for Charles Darwin or Mark Twain.


    • Dw

      You’re out of luck then: the forthcoming 5-pound note will feature Winston Churchill.


      • As I said in reply to John, I didn’t intend my post, which was making a point about decontextualised quotation, to provoke a political discussion. There are plenty of other places for that. My not deeply considered reply to weggieboy was meant as no more than an acknowledgement of his comment.


  3. Depends how you define your terms, I suppose.


    • Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle:

      Although all three [Indians of Tierra del Fuego] could both speak and understand a good deal of English, it was singularly difficult to obtain much information from them, concerning the habits of their countrymen; this was partly owing to their apparent difficulty in understanding the simplest alternative. Every one accustomed to very young children, knows how seldom one can get an answer even to so simple a question as whether a thing is black or white; the idea of black or white seems alternately to fill their minds. So it was with these Fuegians, and hence it was generally impossible to find out, by cross questioning, whether one had rightly understood anything which they had asserted.

      Twain, The Noble Red Man:

      He is ignoble—base and treacherous, and hateful in every way. Not even imminent death can startle him into a spasm of virtue. The ruling trait of all savages is a greedy and consuming selfishness, and in our Noble Red Man it is found in its amplest development. His heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts. With him, gratitude is an unknown emotion; and when one does him a kindness, it is safest to keep the face toward him, lest the reward be an arrow in the back. To accept of a favor from him is to assume a debt which you can never repay to his satisfaction, though you bankrupt yourself trying. To give him a dinner when he is starving, is to precipitate the whole hungry tribe upon your hospitality, for he will go straight and fetch them, men, women, children, and dogs, and these they will huddle patiently around your door, or flatten their noses against your window, day after day, gazing beseechingly upon every mouthful you take, and unconsciously swallowing when you swallow! The scum of the earth!

      And, for the heck of it, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator:

      I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes [sic], nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

      In short, to expect our heroes to be heroic in all things is to demand more than mere humanity can supply.


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