(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“An artist cannot do anything slovenly”: The Guardian fails to safeguard the accuracy of Jane Austen’s quotes—on her birthday, no less!

I was surprised today to notice some extreme editorial carelessness—and, even worse, a lack of comprehension of the irony that permeates all of Jane Austen’s writing---in the following puff piece that ran today in The Guardian literary blog on the happy occasion of Jane’s 239th birthday:

The premise was to list 30 memorable quotes, taken mostly from JA’s novels, but with a few from her letters as well, and to invite readers to suggest other JA quotes they love. A harmless little love fest that only a literary Scrooge could criticize, you’d think—what could go wrong?

Well, as much as I enjoy almost any celebration of Jane Austen’s genius, my inner curmudgeon just could not remain silent in this case---and here is the perfect Austen quote to explain why, which the author of The Guardian blog post might wish to carve onto her computer monitor as a constant reminder from this moment forward. It is from a 1798 letter (Letter 11 in Le Faye’s edition of JA’s letters) written by the nearly 23-year old Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra:

"I hope George was pleased with my designs. Perhaps they would have suited him as well had they been less elaborately finished; but an artist cannot do anything slovenly."

The facts behind this famous saying seem clear. George is their 3-year nephew, the son of their elder brother Edward, the brother who had his “Frank Churchill Moment”, so to speak, as a young teenager, when he was, in effect, adopted by the Knights. The Knights were a rich, childless couple, relatives of the Austens, and within a year of JA writing that letter to Cassandra, the widow Mrs. Knight made Edward the owner of Godmersham, the great Kentish estate where Cassandra was then on an extended visit (as unpaid additional governess for Edward’s growing brood).

So, it seems that Jane Austen sketched some “elaborately finished designs”—we may never know of what, but my best guess would be of animals at the Austen family farm at Steventon---in her previous letter to Cassandra, sketches which were intended for the viewing pleasure of their little nephew. Even though Cassandra was the sister with the serious drawing skills, Jane must also have had some abilities in that domain as well. And it is beyond dispute that Jane Austen was a favorite among all her nieces and nephews because she lavished such special attention on them, always encouraging them to grow their minds and make them laugh at the same time.

But back to my original point---even in designs intended for the eyes of a 3 year old, Jane Austen, at age 23 still a young adult, already prided herself on taking the time to get things right—she had already set an artistic course not to foist off anything on any audience, no matter how undiscriminating, that would not pass the test of time. No matter what else, she took extreme care to avoid careless mistakes. No real life Mr. Knightley was going to say about Jane’s designs—“That mare is too tall, Jane”.

Which brings me to that blog post in The Guardian. Believe it or not, among the thirty quotations, there are THREE which have material errors. One could slip through the cracks despite diligent care, two would be suspicious, but three brings us into what Emma might have considered Miss Bates Territory:

"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"
Emma could not resist.
"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."

And here are those three:


“There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” — Personal correspondence

Actually there is no such quotation, or anything remotely resembling it that I can find, anywhere in Jane Austen’s actual writing, fictional or otherwise. What appears to be the source of this misquotation is the 1999 Patricia Rozema film adaptation of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s novel still celebrating its bicentennial in 1814. I gather this from the following 1999 online review of that film:

I must advise that I did not actually go back and re-watch the film, I relied on that website. But regardless of the source, the misquotation is clear. And this reminds me, this is not the first time I have been puzzled at seeing an alleged quotation from Jane Austen, one that did not ring any bell for me, only to discover upon followup that it was a misquotation! So, watch out for the next one when it appears in your Twitter feed.


“Know your own happiness. Want for nothing but patience - or give it a more fascinating name: Call it hope” —Sense and Sensibility (1811)

At least here there is an actual line in S&S, but the actual quotation is slightly different:
“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience -- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.

This slight alteration, however, turns that misquoted section into nonsense, but only when you don’t just skim by, but read it carefully. The misquotation attempts to convert Mrs. Dashwood’s kindly advice to Edward Ferrars into a supercharged pep talk, with four successive imperative verbs: KNOW your own happiness…WANT for nothing but patience…GIVE it a more fascinating name…CALL it hope. She sounds like Knute Rockne exhorting the Fighting Irish to win one for the Gipper.

The problem is, that “WANT” makes no sense! If taken literally, that exhortation would mean the opposite of Mrs. Dashwood’s actual meaning. I.e., if she were actually urging him to want for nothing but patience, it would mean he’d want for patience, which would means she was exhorting him to be IMpatient!

And if we know anything, we know that this was exactly the sort of error that Jane Austen at all costs sought to avoid making. That’s why she famously wrote the following to Cassandra in 1813 while writing Mansfield Park: “I learn from Sir J. Carr that there is no Government House at Gibraltar-I must alter it to the Commissioner’s.”

And sure enough, in the text of MP, we read Henry Crawford uttering the following:

“…when Mrs. Brown, and the other women at the Commissioner's at Gibraltar, appeared in the same trim, I thought they were mad; but Fanny can reconcile me to anything"

Now, I defy anyone to tell me how the story of MP is changed in any material way by JA making sure she was accurately describing a large municipal building on Gibraltar—only those who knew Gibraltar well enough to know there was no Government House there would have caught the error. But for JA, it was worth getting hold of Carr’s book and checking that very point—because “an artist cannot do anything slovenly.” She did not want anyone—but especially her sailor brothers—to have the spell of verisimilitude in her fiction be broken even for a second by a factual incongruity.

And now…


“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” —Mansfield Park (1814)

Here we have, again, what might at first seem a slight misquotation, but one which, upon closer consideration, actually changes the entire meaning from the original:

“Dinner was soon followed by tea and coffee, a ten miles' drive home allowed no waste of hours; and from the time of their sitting down to table, it was a quick succession of busy nothings till the carriage came to the door, and Mrs. Norris, having fidgeted about, and obtained a few pheasants' eggs and a cream cheese from the housekeeper, and made abundance of civil speeches to Mrs. Rushworth, was ready to lead the way.

So, what was in the novel a nice turn of phrase to describe the very quick tempo of the dinner at Sotherton (in the aftermath of the dramatic and time-consuming events in the wilderness beyond the fateful ha-ha that Maria Bertram so Freudianly slips through), becomes a silly cliché that JA never wrote or intended, conveying a sentiment of cosmic ennui that T.S. Eliot nailed a century later:

“I have measured out my life with teaspoons.”

Somehow I don’t think Jane Austen, who we all know was capable of aphoristic, metaphorical genius equal to Eliot’s, would want to have attributed to her the blather of “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

And it appears we have the website ironically named  to thank for this grotesque error:

By now I think it’s clear—if you’re going to quote Jane Austen, it might just be a good idea to go back to the source, i.e., to Jane Austen’s actual novel texts themselves! If you don’t want to pull out a print copy and check, at least go to one of the half dozen reliable websites where you might find a true copy of what was actually published!


As my inner curmudgeon is by now exhausted by the effort of carefully documenting these three errors (a 10% error rate would be magnificent in many other endeavors, but not in the field of quoting famous authors), I will conclude by quickly running through the deeper problem with this list of 30 quotations, even if they had all been exactly and correctly quoted. I.e., that, as at least one of the commenters on that blog post pointed out, several have been taken completely out of context, and that lack of context demonstrates a lack of understanding that they were intended to be read ironically!

Here are the three best examples:


From Mansfield Park:

“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

It sorta changes your idea about this aphorism when you realize that it is Mrs. Norris—yes, the hasty piece of work for whom JK Rowling named that cat--- speaking out of both sides of her mouth, who says this about Fanny Price, her niece whom Mrs. Norris will then spend the rest of the novel tormenting, a true “education” in the school of hard knocks!


A close second in the irony department must be the following bit of self congratulation in Northanger Abbey:

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature.”

Of course, the irony is that this is the Machiavellian Isabella Thorpe, speaking to the heroine Catherine Morland, after which Isabella will betray Catherine’s friendship in at least a half dozen different ways before Catherine finally wises up about Isabella.


And my final choice is this one from Emma:

“Without music, life would be a blank to me.”

Out of context, this seems like the statement of a true music lover, a connoisseur—but when you learn that it is the Philistine Mrs. Elton so opining, you have to wonder…..

And on that fitting note of irony, I conclude, hoping that I myself have been careful enough, by double-checking my sources, not to add any slovenly errors of my own to the mix.

On her 239th birthday, Jane Austen deserves no less of an effort.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Irony Elf said...

COFFEE spoons