C'est la vie, as they say on the BBC

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The other day Melvyn Bragg was starting the week with, among other things, a discussion of Jane Austen, which I was only half-listening to on the grounds that I have only ever half-read a Jane Austen novel, when my ear was caught by someone quoting from a Jane Austen letter.

"And she says at the end of the letter" - I am paraphrasing from memory here - "she says at the end of the letter that she is sorry she has written so much and that she would have written shorter if she had the time. Isn't that just delightfully Austenish? Doesn't one know exactly what she means ...?"

The reason this caught my ear is that I happened to know that Jane Austen wrote nothing of the kind. At least, if she had, she was not the first to do so. I was always taught by my French teacher, Mr Ian "Froggy" Hunter, who was never wrong about anything, that this meaningful joke had been written 200 years earlier by Blaise Pascal in his Lettres Provinciales.

Mark you, I have never read all through his Lettres Provinciales and I have never looked up the remark in a dictionary of quotations. I had always taken Mr Hunter's word for it. But as another remark which Mr Hunter liked to throw at us was "Always verify your references", I have finally decided to look it up in my Oxford Book of Quotes (which I now notice is actually called The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) and there under Pascal (died 1662) is plainly written: "Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." ("I have only made this letter longer than usual because I did not have the time to make it any shorter.")

Maybe Jane Austen said it as well. Maybe she thought of it independently. Maybe she nicked it from Pascal. Maybe she didn't say it at all, and the expert on Start the Week got it all wrong. But one thing is for sure: if you want to steal a quotation from the French, you are almost certain to get away with it. There simply isn't any overlap worth speaking of between quotation worlds.

If you look through any book of quotations, from the Oxford book to a modern one like Jonathon Green's Says Who?, you'll find that almost all the thousands of quotations are English or American ones. This isn't because we do better ones. It's because those are the ones we know.

Go to a French dictionary of quotations and you'll find a totally different selection, almost all of French origin. In fact, I once did go to a French book of quotes, and found not only millions of French quotes we don't know but some English quotes that we don't know either. There was one remark listed under the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one only, to the effect that you should never believe anything written in an Englishman's autobiography, as he only wrote such a book to cover his traces. Nothing from the Sherlock Holmes stories at all. Just this one remark, obviously included more for its anti-English flavour than any native wit.

I would be willing to bet that our store of French quotations, whether later rewritten by Jane Austen or not, is pitifully small. The most famous remark by Voltaire, for ins-tance, was not even made by him at all. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" was invented in a book written in English in 1907 to exemplify what Voltaire believed in. Can you quote anything from Charles de Gaulle? From Jean-Paul Sartre? From Des-cartes, except, "Je pense, donc je suis"?

"I think, therefore I am" is possibly the most famous philosophical statement ever made, and I think it is entirely typical that a Frenchman made it. An Englishman would never have said it, or, if he did, he would not have become famous for saying it.

An Englishman becomes famous in more practical ways, such as by having an apple fall on his head and thinking of gravity. If Descartes had had an apple fall on his head, he would have said: "That apple, despite having fallen from a tree and thus travelling further in one second than it has previously travelled during its entire life, does not know it has fallen, whereas I, who have sat here motionless the whole time, am endowed with the ability to be conscious of the apple's existence, therefore ..." and we would never have got round to gravity at all.

More of this tomorrow, when you have finished this little quiz:

1. Who was it who said "Vive la diffrence!"?

2. Who said "Originality is the fine art of remembering what you heard but forgetting where you heard it"?

3. Who wrote the words of the Marseillaise?

4. And who urgedus always to verify our references?