If a Book Is Well Written, I Always Find It Too Short

Jane Austen? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous novelist Jane Austen wrote that when she was reading an enjoyable book she always found that it was too short. Would you please help me to locate this quotation?

Quote Investigator: Jane Austen was born in 1775, and she began to work on a novel called “Catharine or the Bower” when she was still in her teens in 1792. The incomplete work is part of her juvenilia.

The main character Catharine (Kitty) Percival has a friend named Camilla Stanley. The omniscient narrator states that Kitty is a “great reader, tho’ perhaps not a very deep one”. The judgment of Stanley is considerably harsher:

She professed a love of books without reading, was lively without wit, and generally good humoured without merit.

The pair discusses two novels: “Emmeline” and “Ethelinde” by a popular contemporary author. The following dialog begins with a question from Kitty and has a satirical edge. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1998, Catharine and Other Writings by Jane Austen, Editors: Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray, Series: Oxford World’s Classics, Story: Catharine, or the Bower, Unnumbered Page, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

‘And which do you prefer of them?’ ‘Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them—Emmeline is so much better than any of the others—’ ‘Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their merits to me; do you think it is better written?’

‘Oh! I do not know anything about that—but it is better in every thing—Besides, Ethelinde is so long—’That is a very common objection I believe,’ said Kitty, ‘but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.‘ ‘So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.’ ‘But did not you find the story of Ethelinde very interesting? And the descriptions of Grasmere, are not they Beautiful?’ ‘Oh! I missed them all, because I was in such a hurry to know the end of it’—.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination” mentioned the quotation:[ref] 2000 (First Edition 1979), The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Second Edition, Chapter: Shut Up in Prose: Austen’s Juvenilia, Quote Page 127, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Characteristically, in Austen’s juvenilia one girl explains, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short,” and discovers that her friend agrees: “So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.” What is so wonderful about these sentences is the “ladylike” way in which they quietly subvert the conventions of language, while managing to sound perfectly acceptable, even grammatically elegant and decorous.

In 1997 a book review published in “The San Diego Union-Tribune” stated that the quotation appeared in a letter:[ref] 1997 November 23, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Section: Books, That great screenwriter – Jane Austen’s character remains as elusive as her novels were incisive by Anne Marie Welsh, Quote Page Books-03, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“If a book is well-written I always find it too short,” Austen wrote in one of her surviving letters.

In 2013 “The Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Literary Quotations” placed the quotation into one of Austen’s later novels. This appears to be incorrect:[ref] 2013, The Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Literary Quotations, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: Jane Austen, Quote Page Unnumbered, Biteback Publishing, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

… but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

In conclusion, the quotation is spoken by the character Kitty constructed by Jane Austen in the early work “Catharine or the Bower”. The opinions of novelists and their characters often diverge; however, QI believes that Austen agreed with Kitty in this case.

(Great thanks to Amy Mrosko who heard QI on the April 4, 2017 broadcast of “NPR: All Things Considered” and sent an inquiry which led to the formulation of this question and to the posting of this exploration. Thanks also to the wonderful team at NPR.)

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