This One 'Pride & Prejudice' Quote About Reading Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means
Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen continues to thrill and delight us with her work and its infinite adaptations. With entire online networks devoted to Janeites — the unofficially official name for the Austen fandom — it's clear that there's no wane in sight for her popularity. But there's one Pride and Prejudice quote that weeds out fake Janeites from the true fans.
The quote in question comes from Miss Caroline Bingley, the sister of Jane Bennet's beau, Charles Bingley. In chapter 11 of Pride and Prejudice, Caroline says:
"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."
In the 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was published, Caroline Bingley's words have appeared on banknotes, in eulogies, and as part of stickers and decals aimed at Janeites. The quote appears to be a celebration of reading as a hobby, as if Jane Austen could speak to us across the long years and tell us that we are all great, wonderful creatures for enjoying books.
There's just one problem. Unlike those of us who grew up disappointed by Beauty and the Beast that no one had ever given them a personal, multi-storey libary, Caroline Bingley doesn't love reading, nor would she be "miserable" without an expansive library. She says those words purely to attract Mr. Darcy's attentions, as reading the full paragraph, and not just the out-of-context quote, shows:
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 inquiry, 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.”
When Mr. Darcy pays no attention to Caroline Bingley, the narrator tells us that she "threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement." Her motive is never to connect with a fellow reader, but to bamboozle Darcy into thinking she's just as much of a bookworm as he.
Among Janeite communities, the quote has taken on the role of a shibboleth, or a litmus test. Businesses, agencies, and individuals who use Caroline Bingley's words in an attempt to crystallize Jane Austen's message and meaning are instantly shown to be fake fans who do not understand Pride and Prejudice nor Jane Austen's snark and satire. For a perfect summary of Janeites' responses to the use of the quote in popular culture, check out "Caroline Bingley" on Twitter.
The briefest glance at the text surrounding Caroline's quote reveals that her words should never be taken at face value, which means that businesses and organizations looking to capitalize on Austen's enduring popularity should — one would think — know better than to use it as a celebration of reading and bookishness. Hence our collective eye-rolls whenever we see "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!" plastered on some tote bag or tea towel — or a £10 banknote.
No part of this should be taken to mean that individuals shouldn't buy merchandise emblazoned with Caroline Bingley's words. I reserve my criticism for businesses and organizations, and if someone wants to unashamedly rock the quote, for whatever reason, that's their business. The private citizen with a sticker of the quote on her laptop could be using it ironically, for all any of us knows. In any case, it would be a real jerk move to walk up to some stranger on the street to tell them they're not a real Austen fan or book nerd.
Of course, there's always the chance that Jane Austen would have found the misuse of this particular Pride and Prejudice passage hilarious. Her novels drip with sarcasm and backhanded compliments, so many Janeites, including The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read author Philippa Perry, argue that Austen would be laughing herself all the way to the bank if she could see what the 21st century has done with Caroline Bingley's quote about reading.