Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
Let me paraphrase: Of all authors with a reputation for writing romances, Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of writing something romantic.
Look, for example, at the latest work of the Internet Truthiness Quote Machine: a recent piece on the website of Travel + Leisure magazine offering “101 Romantic Messages to Keep the Love Alive While You're Apart.” The suggestions include a list of fifty “Romantic Quotes for Love Letters,” two of them attributed to Jane Austen.
Given Austen’s popular reputation as a purveyor of swoony, rose-tinted chick lit about handsome young men courting pretty girls in high-waisted dresses while wandering the grounds of palatial English estates, you’d think it would be quick work to find Austen quotes for such a list.
And yet only one of the two quotes that T+L attributes to Austen was actually written by her, and that one – “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I have loved none but you,” from Persuasion – seems an odd choice for a message to an accepted lover, since it bespeaks the writer’s uncertainty that his feelings will be returned.
Meanwhile, the other quote – “To love is to burn, to be on fire”— is not by Austen at all. It’s a line from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which the ITQM has been busily misattributing for years. (For details, check out this excellent blog post by researcher Sue Brewton, a woman whose obsession with misquotation rivals my own. I can’t believe I’ve only just stumbled across the work of this soul sister.)
So of T+L’s two Austen love quotes, one is faux and one is out of context. That record is bad, yes, but hardly unprecedented. As blog readers know, I’ve been banging on about both problems for years. Indeed, one of the leading examples of out-of-context distortions concerns a love quote: As I’ve noted before, the supposedly swoony start to Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, in Pride and Prejudice -- "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” – is, in context, not so romantic after all. *
But for would-be Austen love-quoters, the main problem is that despite her reputation for lovey-doveyness, which largely derives from the movies based on her work, Austen isn’t actually a romance writer: she’s a satirist whose stories happen to concern courtship, the crucial moment of decision in a genteel young woman’s life. Thus it is that these alleged romance novels offer a startling paucity of love scenes that Internet listicle-makers can mine for ardent tidbits.
Janeites are well aware of Austen’s stinginess in this regard. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon propose to the Dashwood sisters offstage; Edmund Bertram sues for Fanny’s hand in a couple of highly ironic summary paragraphs; Catherine Morland is “assured of [Henry Tilney’s] affection” in words that readers must imagine for themselves; and Darcy’s successful proposal is the height of respectful restraint – “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.” I’m partial to Mr. Knightley’s declaration – “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” – but note that this is a love quote about the impossibility of love quotes. Captain Wentworth stands alone among Austen heroes in his forthright avowal of his feelings, and as for the heroines – well, let’s just say that Austen’s description of Emma’s reply to her suitor (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”) pretty much covers them all.
Why is it so hard to find certifiably, one-hundred-percent-genuine, heart-warming Jane Austen quotes about love? Mr. Knightley’s proposal offers a clue. Unlike the denizens of our therapeutic age, Austen is suspicious of people who talk fluently about their most intense and private emotions. If you can manufacture beautiful phrases about love, she suggests, you probably don’t have much time left to actually experience it. I shudder to imagine what she would have thought about people who turn to Internet listicles for advice on romantic messaging.
* And lest I find myself tempted to stop obsessing on this topic, just a couple of days after I published this post, the website Everyday Power -- founded in 2010 by a middle-school English teacher who wanted to provide "relevant and meaningful material he felt his students needed to experience" -- produced a list of "50 Love Quotes For Your Husband To Make Him Feel Appreciated." The three Jane Austen quotes on the list include Mr. Darcy's first proposal (twice! Don't ask me), and yet another not-in-Austen line -- “My heart is and always will be yours" -- from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility screenplay. According to the site, Everyday Power is "a curriculum resource for many schools across the country." The mind boggles.