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.