The Tyranny of Misquotation

Unquestionably, the impending appearance of Jane Austen on the English ten-pound note is a wonderful development. What better woman to represent the sex — alongside the Queen, of course — on the currency?

But while the terrifyingly vitriolic response to the announcement from some dark corners of the internet has been widely covered, less attention has been paid to the truly troublesome aspect of the news: the quotation that is to accompany Austen’s portrait on the note: “”I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

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The problem is well-articulated by John Mullan in The Guardian.

The trouble is that these words are spoken by one of Austen’s most deceitful characters, a woman who has no interest in books at all: Caroline Bingley. She is sidling up to Mr Darcy, whom she would like to hook as a husband, and pretending that she shares his interests. He is reading a book, so she sits next to him and pretends to read one too. She is, Austen writes, “as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own” and “perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page”. He will not be distracted, so “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 gives a great yawn and says the words that will appear on the bank note.

It’s unsettling, bordering on insulting, that Austen’s image will be paired with words that don’t belong to her — that belong, indeed, to a character who deserves so little praise. I’d much prefer we (or, I guess, the Brits) quote Austen in her letters, or one of her narrators, or a character we are meant to respect or love.

But what we see here is a failure of close reading, a failure that shows a diminishing respect for the integrity of words.

This misplacement of words’ ownership — between authors and their characters — happens often. As well said in an article on Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All:

Ms. Garber merrily illustrates how modern culture can miss Shakespeare’s original points. References to “Othello” in general, and to Iago’s mocking mention of preserving one’s good name in particular, tend to be particularly flat-footed.

And there are other brands of tyrannous misquotation besides misplaced ownership.

There is unthinking paraphrase: Remember the (thankfully-now-undone) misquotation of Martin Luther King Jr. on his memorial. His actual quote: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” And then once tyrannized:

…Carved on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue, the inscription reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, 83, said Tuesday. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.

And there is, finally, simple false quotation:

When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them. Henry James, George Eliot, Picasso — all of them are being kept alive in popular culture through pithy, cheery sayings they never actually said.

Perhaps if we respected and studied novels, plays, speeches — words — more often and more considerately, we would maintain more respect for the integrity of these quotations.

So what would be the right Austen quote for the ten-pound note?

Like Austen, we love and identify with Elizabeth Bennet, who, reading Darcy’s letter after his failed first proposal, learns to see the world more clearly — much as we see the world more clearly through reading Austen’s novels.

I’d choose, then, Elizabeth’s thought in that moment: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” Of course, I’d show true respect for the words by providing a bit more information. How about this next to Austen’s portrait?:

“Till this moment, I never knew myself.” — Elizabeth Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

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