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 was thought late 20th century folk would not understand the concerns of early 19th century women without some tweaking of the script. For example an obvious question for modern audiences is: if the Dashwood sisters were so desperate for money, why didn’t they sack some of their servants and go and get jobs? The short answer is this is not what middle class women did 200 years ago.

In the subsequent Oscars, Thompson was nominated for both Best Actress and Best Screenplay — and she won in the screenplay category. As Thompson had won a Best Actress Oscar a couple of years previously, at the time of writing this post, Emma Thompson remains the only person to have ever won an Oscar for both her writing and acting. Jane Austen, whose writings contain a strong element of humour and irony, would have been amused.

Jane Austen would have been amused
Charles Christian

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