George Eliot? Adelaide Anne Procter? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear 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.
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩