A Facility for Quotation Covers the Absence of Original Thought

Dorothy L. Sayers? Lord Peter Wimsey? Harriet Vane? Philip Broadley? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have found the perfect sardonic motto for the QI website:

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.

According to the “Encarta Book of Quotations” 1 these words were spoken by the character Lord Peter Wimsey in the 1935 novel “Gaudy Night” by the acclaimed mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers.

Prepare for the twist ending of this message. I have “Gaudy Night” on my bookshelf, but I have been unable to find this quotation. Would you please help to solve this vexatious mystery?

Quote Investigator: QI has examined two editions 2 of “Gaudy Night” 3
and has been unable to find this quip; hence, QI believes that the “Encarta” reference book is mistaken.

Interestingly, a different novel by Sayers contains a very similar remark by Lord Peter Wimsey. He delivered the following line in the 1932 novel “Have His Carcase”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 4

“I always have a quotation for everything—it saves original thinking.”

“Blast the man!” said Harriet, left abruptly alone in the blue-plush lounge.

Below are additional selected citations that assist in the resolution of this whodunit.

The BBC together with the PBS station WGBH Boston co-produced the television series “A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery” which was broadcast in 1987. Three of the episodes were dedicated to an adaption of “Gaudy Night”. The setting of the work was the fictional all-female Shrewsbury College of the University of Oxford. During the third episode Lord Peter (played by Edward Petherbridge) attended a dinner with college administrators and conversed with the Warden (played by Sheila Burrell). The following dialog begins with a remark by the Warden: 5

“You are extensively read, Lord Peter.”

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought, Warden.”

“Oh, I think you’re excessively modest. The apt quotation is no mere intellectual sleight of hand. It’s a form of wisdom.”

“The only kind of wisdom that has any social use is the knowledge of one’s own limitations.”

According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) the BBC dramatization of “Gaudy Night” was written by Philip Broadley. 6 QI hypothesizes that Broadley was aware of the quip in the book “Have His Carcase”, and he decided to rewrite it for inclusion in the script of “Gaudy Night”. Thus, the dialog above was a composite of material from at least two books. For example, the final line was closely based on the following in the book “Gaudy Night”: 7

“Hush! there is only one kind of wisdom that has any social value, and that is the knowledge of one’s own limitations.”

The interplay between the two characters in the television scene was entertaining. A reviewer in the “Daily News” of New York in 1987 reprinted the lines for her readers: 8

My favorite scene has Wimsey invited to dinner by the college administration, all women. Listening to him quote the classics with great ease, the impressed warden. Dr. Baring (Sheila Burrell), tells him: “You are extensively read. Lord Wimsey.” And Wimsey replies: “The facility of quotation suggests the absence of original thought.” But the warden insists he’s being too modest “The apt quotation is more than an intellectual sleight of hand,” she says. “It’s a form of wisdom.” Still Wimsey persists. “The only wisdom with any social use is the knowledge of one’s limitations.”

Readers of the newspaper review may have believed that all the lines of dialog were taken verbatim from the book “Gaudy Night”. This reflects a known misquotation error mechanism. When works are adapted to stage, radio, and television the text is often altered and new material is introduced. Fresh lines are sometimes incorrectly ascribed to original source works.

In 1992 the statement appeared as an epigraph in a computer textbook called “Compared To What?: An Introduction To the Analysis of Algorithms”: 9

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

In 2004 the statement occurred as an entry in “Brit Wit: The Perfect Riposte for Every Social Occasion”: 10

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.
Dorothy L. Sayers, writer and theologian (1893-1957)

In conclusion, the statement under analysis does not appear in the 1935 book “Gaudy Night” by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is quite similar to a quip in the 1932 book “Have His Carcase” by Sayers. The statement precisely matches a line in a 1987 television dramatization of “Gaudy Night” by Philip Broadley. QI conjectures that Broadley was inspired by the line in “Have His Carcase” by Sayers.

Image Notes: Picture of a building at the University of Oxford. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to John Cowan who told QI about this quotation and noted its attribution to “Gaudy Night” by Sayers. He also pointed to the comparable remark by Lord Peter in “Have His Carcase”. These dual observations provided inspiration for this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 2000, Encarta Book of Quotations, Edited by Bill Swainson, Entry: Dorothy L. Sayers, Quote Page 826, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1958 (1935 Copyright), Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, (Quotation was absent), Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1968 (1936 Copyright), Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, (Quotation was absent), Avon Books: A Division of The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1975 (Copyright 1932), Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers, Series: A Lord Peter Wimsey Novel, Quote Page 53, Avon Books: A Division of The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. YouTube video, Title: Gaudy Night (Michael Simpson) – Episode Three, Uploaded on May 25, 2013, Uploaded by: clandestienfilm, Location: Quotation starts at 16 minute 8 seconds of 50 minutes 46 seconds), Description: This video excerpt is from series “A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery” produced by the BBC and PBS station WGBH Boston broadcast in 1987. (Accessed on youtube.com on October 30, 2019) link
  6. Website: Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Show Name: A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery (1987), Episode Title: Gaudy Night: Episode Three, Season 1, Episode 10, Episode Airdate: May 27, 1987, Website description: Extensive information about movies and television shows. (Accessed imdb.com on October 30, 2019) link
  7. 1958 (1935 Copyright), Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, Chapter XVII, Quote Page 250, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1987 November 19, Daily News, Section: TV, ‘Mystery!’ goes to school: Latest Wimsey episode set at Oxford reunion by Kay Gardella, Quote Page 104, Column 2, New York, New York. (Newspapers.com)
  9. 1992 Copyright, Compared To What?: An Introduction To the Analysis of Algorithms by Gregory J. E. Rawlins, Section: Preface, Quote Page xxvii, (Quotation is used an epigraph), Computer Science Press: An Imprint of W. H. Freeman and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2011 (2004 Copyright), Brit Wit: The Perfect Riposte for Every Social Occasion by Susie Jones, Topic: Quotes and Quotations, Quote Page 11, Summersdale Publishers Ltd, Chichester, West Sussex, England. (Verified with scans)