Thursday, 2 July 2020

Reading with a Yawn

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!

These are the words that appear on the English £10 note that celebrates the author Jane Austen. It’s a quotation from the most-loved of Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice. Now who could have uttered those profound words?

Of the Bennet family it certainly couldn’t have been Kitty or Lydia, who were quite open about their disdain for any thing intellectual. They would prefer to be chasing soldiers. They take after their mother, who would have discouraged reading as a pastime unlikely to win her girls a husband. Elizabeth would have been the most serious reader, and Jane would have read whatever was prescribed for young ladies, but neither of them would have been crass enough to boast about it. Nor would Mr. Bennet, even though he spent most of his time in the library to escape his wife and three of his daughters. Mary is the most likely candidate, for she is vain, and walks around with a book in her hand. But it wasn’t her. 

Who else could it have been? 

Jane Austen reserves the line for a character who would expect to live in a house with a fine library, but would never have read any of its books. Caroline Bingley is vacuous and vain, a conceited snob. It’s a delicious irony that Jane Austen gives the line to such a shallow character. 

It’s a further irony that the line should appear on the bank note, the government apparently unaware that the author used the line, not to praise reading but to mock the superficiality and conceit of a character who probably didn’t read at all. It’s a classic example of a quotation taken out of context, not in this case from some ulterior motive, but from ignorance. Here is the quotation 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 enquiry 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 anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

The Guardian, which covered the story at the time, speculated that perhaps a Bank of England employee, given the task of choosing an appropriate line from Jane Austen, found it in a dictionary of quotations, without having read any of the novels.

For another controversial issue of  British currency, see the Oxford Comma.

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