It’s Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been

George Eliot? Adelaide Anne Procter? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

george12Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quotation about untapped potential and enduring spirit is attributed to the prominent Victorian novelist George Eliot:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

This popular saying has been printed on refrigerator magnets, posters, shirts, and key chains. But I have never seen the source specified. Are these really the words of George Eliot?

Quote Investigator: George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who died in 1880. Researchers have been unable to locate this quotation in her books or letters. Currently, the ascription to Eliot has no substantive support.

The earliest evidence of an exact match known to QI appeared in “Literary News: A Monthly Journal of Current Literature” in 1881. The editor held a contest to gather the best quotations from Eliot’s oeuvre. The following was the announcement printed in the April 1881 issue: 1

Prize Question No 31.
Subject: Gems from George Eliot.

Quote the most striking passage known to you from George Eliot’s writings; not to exceed thirty words. Answers due May 20.

In June 1881 the excerpts submitted by readers were printed in the periodical; however, they were not fully vetted for accuracy. Also, some entries did not specify the originating text. For example, these four items were included in the list. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

We present herewith the selections made by our readers from the writings of George Eliot. Excluding all that exceed the prescribed limit of thirty words, we present herewith seventy-one selections. …

21. “Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.”—Adam Bede

22. “A woman’s choice generally means taking the only man she can get.” —Middlemarch.

23. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

24. “I’m not denyin’ the women are foolish; God Almighty made ’em to match the men.”

Statement 21 was correct though truncated. Statement 22 was slightly inaccurate; the novel used the word “usually” instead of “generally”. Statement 23 has never been found in the works of Eliot. Statement 24 did not list a source, but it did appear in “Adam Bede”.

This important citation with the incorrect attribution of the target quotation was identified by Professor Leah Price. After 1881 quotation number 23 started to appear in a variety of publications credited to George Eliot, and “Literary News” may have been the prime locus for its dissemination.

A very interesting partial match for the saying appeared earlier in a poem in 1859. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematic precursor was included in a lecture published in London in 1847. The following passage highlighted the possibility of growth and accomplishment late in life: 3

It is never too late to become a scholar, or a great man. Cato, the censor, learnt Greek in his old age. King Alfred was twelve years old before he could repeat his alphabet. Cromwell was forty-two years of age before he fought his first battle—and Blake was fifty before he entered the navy.

In 1859 the poet Adelaide Anne Procter released “The Ghost in the Picture Room” in the special Christmas issue of the London periodical “All the Year Round” which was edited by Charles Dickens. QI believes that the following couplet embodied a strong conceptual match for the quotation under investigation and a partial syntactic match:

No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.

The larger context within the work discussed the possibility of leading a “noble life”. The vicissitudes of subsisting might deflect one from pursuing an ideal path, but the author contended that crucial alternatives were not foreclosed, and one might still pursue a “noble life” at any time. The poem became better known under the title “A Legend of Provence”: 4 5

Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,
Some pure ideal of a noble life
That once seemed possible? Did we not hear
The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,
And just within our reach? It was. And yet
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret;
But still our place is kept, and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.

Since good, tho’ only thought, has life and breath,
God’s life—can always be redeemed from death;
And evil, in its nature, is decay,
And any hour can blot it all away;
The hopes that, lost, in some far distance seem.
May be the truer life, and this the dream.

Procter’s couplet was memorable, and it has continued to circulate up to the present day. In 1879 “Replies: A Weekly Journal of Question and Answer” printed the words within a response to a query about the second line: 6

Devorgill.—The line, ‘We always may be what we might have been,’ occurs in a passage in the ‘Legend of Provence,’ by Adelaide Anne Procter—
‘No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.’

In 1881 the quotation being traced was printed in “Literary News” as noted previously. The expression was submitted by a reader of the periodical and no source was designated:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

In 1884 the saying was included in an article about Eliot published in the “Illinois School Journal’. The phrase appeared in a section called “Extracts” that listed twenty quotes attributed to Eliot. 7

In 1887 “The English Language: Its Grammar, History and Literature” was published, and a section about George Eliot’s prose style praised her work exuberantly: 8

Her power is sometimes almost Shakespearian. Like Shakespeare, she gives us a large number of wise sayings, expressed in the pithiest language. The following are a few:—
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
“It is easy finding reasons why other people should be patient.”
“Genius, at first, is little more than a great capacity for receiving discipline.”

The maxim was not universally embraced. In 1896 a book titled “The Education of the Central Nervous System” was sharply critical because the author contended that training in the early years of life was essential: 9

From this mistaken notion arose such adages as: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It would be nearer the truth to say: “It is always too late to be what you might have been.” With each advancing year, this becomes an absolute truth in the case of the vast majority who have reached the age of twenty.

In 1897 William DeVere, self-described tramp poet of the West, published a short piece titled “Horse Philosophy” that included a set of adages and a rephrased unattributed version of Procter’s words: 10

And try to do to others as you’d have them do to you.
Remember that no star is lost that you might once have seen,
Remember that you always may be what you might have been,
No matter what your task in life be sure you never shirk,

In 2011 “The New Yorker” magazine published “Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot Teaches Us” by Rebecca Mead who discussed the quotation and its mysterious ascription to Eliot. Mead’s stance was skeptical, and she recounted the words of Professor Leah Price: 11

I’ve always assumed it was apocryphal. It shows up nowhere in full text searches of G.E.’s work. What’s strange is not that the attribution is so persistent but that it starts very early.

Price told Mead about the 1881 contest in “Literary News” that presented the first known instance of the quotation.

In conclusion, QI speculates that the quote attributed to George Eliot is traceable to the line written by Adelaide Anne Procter: “We always may be what we might have been”. In this scenario Procter’s statement would have been rephrased and then reassigned to Eliot. This process may have occurred in the mind of the individual who sent the quote to “Literary News”. Alternatively, the transition may have occurred in multiple steps. Perhaps future research will uncover these intermediary steps. Of course, other hypotheses are not ruled out.

(Great thanks to Karen Pfeiffer Jones @nykaren24 whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Special thanks to Rebecca Mead and Leah Price for their very valuable efforts.)

Notes:

  1. 1881 April, Literary News Prize Question No. 31: Subject: Gems from George Eliot, Quote Page 113, Publisher and Editor: F. Leypoldt, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1881 June, Literary News Prize Question No. 31: Subject: Gems from George Eliot, (Quote Number 23), Start Page 176, Quote Page 177, Publisher and Editor: F. Leypoldt, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1847, Sequel to Lectures Delivered at Literary and Mechanics’ Institutions by William Henry Leatham, “Lecture 1: The Rise, Growth, Maturity, and Prospects of English Literature, &c, &c”, Start Page 1, Quote Page 24, Publisher: Longman, Brown. Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1859 December 13, All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal, Conducted by Charles Dickens, (The Haunted House: The Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round. Containing the amount of two ordinary numbers, Christmas 1859), The Ghost in the Picture Room by Adelaide Anne Procter, Start Page 19, Quote Page 21, Column 2, Published at Number 11, Wellington Street North, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1864, The Poems of Adelaide A. Procter by Adelaide Anne Procter, Poem: A Legend of Provence, Start Page 181, Quote Page 191, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1879 December 20, Replies: A Weekly Journal of Question and Answer, Conducted by Malcolm C. Salaman, Volume 2, Number 38, Answers to Correspondents, Quote Page 189, Column 1, Published by The Co-operative Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1884 February, Illinois School Journal, General Exercises by Edward Bangs, (Discussion of George Eliot: 1820-1880), Start Page 250, Quote Page 250, Normal, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1887, The English Language: Its Grammar, History and Literature by J. M. D. Meiklejohn (John Miller Dow Meiklejohn), Quote Page 365, D.C. Heath & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1896, The Education of the Central Nervous System: A Study of Foundations, Especially of Sensory and Motor Training by Reuben Post Halleck, Quote Page 94, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1897, Jim Marshall’s New Planner and Other Western Stories (Specially adapted for public reading) by William De Vere, Horse Philosophy, Quote Page 74, M. Witmark & Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 2011 February 14, The New Yorker, Life and Letters: Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot teaches us by Rebecca Mead, Start Page 76, Quote Page 82, Column 2 and 3,The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (The New Yorker online archive; accessed October 13, 2013)