Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Eureka! Or why mis-quoting irks me...

Years ago, a dear friend sent me a writer care package composed of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet & the Possibility of Being and a lovely keepsake bookmark, velvet and metal, engraved with the quotation "It is never too late to be what you might have been," attributed to Victorian novelist George Eliot. I'm sad to say that I've spent the past 30 min scouring my books for the bookmark because I wanted to post a picture of it, but I can't find it.  (I'm just crossing my fingers that maybe it's tucked into one of the books I keep on my favorites shelf at work.) 

Now I've seen this quotation countless times and seen it attributed to George Eliot regularly.  Do an online search for it, and you'll see it's EVERYWHERE.  It's not only used in publishing but also in the self-help industry, as you might expect. of the chapters in my doctoral dissertation (eons ago) focused on George Eliot's Middlemarch so I've felt a nagging disquiet about this quotation.  While I could easily imagine it said by one of her characters, I hadn't actually run across it in my research.

It's such a hopeful, inspiring statement.  Some might say that the spirit of the statement is what matters, not who actually said it or whether the wording is exact.

But I'm a pedant at heart.  And, fundamentally, I believe not only that words matter (I'm using the term as both significance AND concreteness) but that, when we use the words of others, it's even more important to use them responsibly.  If one quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln or someone you admire, the understanding is that they're doing so to convey a common truth.  To mis-quote destabilizes that truth...and can call into question the expertise and authority of the person doing the mis-quoting.  Worse yet, when a quote such as the one above spreads like wildfire (see just about every online quote or writer quote web site), the truth becomes more and more difficult to establish.  Ultimately, attribution can get completely twisted.  Then we end up with statements like this that are completely inaccurate (NO, it was not in Middlemarch.  Really. You can go to Project Gutenberg yourself and search the full text.)--and yet that article goes on to use that quotation as one of its foundational ideas.  And we end up with actual concrete materials (like my pretty, and completely well-intended, bookmark) that perpetuate the lie (and perhaps make money from it).

So I've done a little digging...and I'm not done yet...but I think I may have found the origin of this mis-quote in Eliot's  Silas Marner.  If this is the source, its context matters to me.  In fact, it turns out that Eliot used the phrase "too late" in almost all of her novels.  (Note: I haven't yet gone through available letters, nor have I gone though her publications in periodicals.)  But usually, she used it in situations that really were "too late"--too late to go back and make wiser choices, too late to change one's ways. 

Here is what I've found thus far (emphasis mine) and it's from Silas Marner:
"Well, Master Marner, it's niver too late to turn over a new leaf, and if you've niver had no church, there's no telling the good it'll do you. For I feel so set up and comfortable as niver was, when I've been and heard the prayers, and the singing to the praise and glory o' God, as Mr. Macey gives out—and Mr. Crackenthorp saying good words, and more partic'lar on Sacramen' Day; and if a bit o' trouble comes, I feel as I can put up wi' it, for I've looked for help i' the right quarter, and gev myself up to Them as we must all give ourselves up to at the last; and if we'n done our part, it isn't to be believed as Them as are above us 'ull be worse nor we are, and come short o' Their'n." (I'm quoting from an ebook without page numbers so the best I can tell you is that this excerpt is from Chapter 10.)
As you can see, this occurrence is pretty close. It's one of the few instances in which Eliot uses the phrase "too late" in a positive sense--and, at least from what I've found so far, those positive influences are all tied to spirituality, which is rather in keeping with Eliot's work. Earthly rescue from our mistakes may not be possible, but spiritual reformation always is, she seems to suggest.
Full disclosure:  I so want the quotation to be real...It's possible that it's from her letters or some other writings.  But this seems like a reasonable origin.  But I've loved this questionable George Eliot quotation (which is not from Middlemarch) for so long that it inspired the title of one of my (as yet unpublished) novels, Never Too Late.  More on the inspirations behind NTL in the near future.

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