The Strange Case of the Jane Austen motivational quote that isn’t!

Charles Christian
2 min readMar 24, 2022

Imagine discovering a well-known quotation by Jane Austen that’s given birth to a cottage industry of motivational posters, book covers and coffee mugs isn’t actually by Jane Austen…

I’m currently writing a novel (a science fiction detective story since you ask) where one of the characters is a huge fan of the works of Jane Austen. I wanted the character to quote Austen early in the story and found these words…

“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us but what we do”

Now all the online references I’ve found — all those Twenty Memorable Quotes by Jane Austen listicles you find on Goodreads and blog posts, plus the motivational merchandise you can buy online, all attribute this to Jane Austen in her novel Sense and Sensibility. Austen wrote this sometime between 1795 and 1797 although it wasn’t published until 1811. So far so good except this line does not appear in the original novel.

The words were actually written almost exactly 200 years later by Emma Thompson, when she produced the screenplay for what would become the 1995 Ang Lee movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility — and indeed Thompson would also star in this movie as Elinor Dashwood. Why not stick to the original Austen text, you ask? Because it…

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Charles Christian

Journalist, editor, author & sometime werewolf hunter. Writes, drinks tea, knows things. (he/him) www.urbanfantasist.com + www.twitter.com/urbanfantasist