History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 May 2010


The book which I just oh-so-gladly handed off to my editor involves the run-up to the infamous Enghien affair, in which Napoleon kidnapped a member of the French royal family (not personally—can you imagine Napoleon trying to toss the Duc d’Enghien over his shoulder?), had him hauled across the Rhine onto French soil, tried him on rather wobbly charges, and summarily executed him. It was not the First Consul’s most shining moment.

Of this affair, it was said, “C'est plus qu'un crime, c'est une faute”, or, en anglais, “It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder.”

But who said it?

Although the famous words were, in fact, voiced by Joseph Fouche, Napoleon’s infamous Minister of Police, many people attribute them instead to another flamboyant member of the Consular regime, Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. The misattribution has its own unintentional humor to it; Fouche and Talleyrand, aside from both being savvy political operators, both employed by Bonaparte, were about as unlike as any two men could be. One imagines that neither would be pleased to be linked for eternity by a shared phrase.

And what about the line, “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”? Just the other day, I found myself arguing rather vehemently that the line was Oscar Wilde’s. Of course it was Wilde! I protested hotly. Mocking club life… well, it just sounded like him.

It turns out I was wrong. Not all the best lines belong to Wilde. This one was properly the property of Groucho Marx.


A quick google search of “misattributed quotations” revealed that I was far from the only one stealing thunder from Peter to gift it to Paul. Shakespeare and Mark Twain appear to be the biggest beneficiaries/victims of the misquotation craze, getting credit for others’ lines at the same times as theirs get snatched, but it isn’t just them. Some of the more amusingly incongruous misattributions that popped up included bits of Aesop being credited to the Bible, Henry Thoreau providing words for the mouth of Jefferson, and (my personal favorite) the twentieth century Russian dictator, Lenin, taking the credit for a phrase penned by the seventeenth century Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift: “Promises and pie crusts are made to be broken.” Somehow, one just can’t imagine Lenin and Swift sharing a cozy cup of tea, even if they could get past the whole milk or lemon/ monarchy or proletarian paradise question.

Have you come across any interesting misquotes?


Blogger Jane O said...

Not exactly misattributions, but two generally accepted attributions only no one can seem to find the precise source:

Voltaire: I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for men of good will to do nothing."

In both cases, the sentiments sound right, but that may be why they are attributed to the gentlemen in question.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I did actually know that the "club" line was Groucho's -- but then again, my mom grew up around the Marx Brothers (Harpo, sans wig, used to drive her to school along with his son).

One of my favorite misattributions is "Let Them Eat Cake" which was most emphatically NOT uttered by Marie Antoinette. However, some historians, Antonia Fraser among them, believe that the quote may be attributed to the wife of Louis XIV, and was "qu'ils mangent de la brioche" ("let them eat brioche," [a rich and slightly sweet breakfast roll made with egg in the dough] which is not "gateau" [cake] and doesn't quite have the same tone deaf ring to it). Rousseau used some form of the quote as well.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I don't blame you, Wilde does generally get the good ones.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So excited to read your book, Lauren! The D'Enghien affair is fascinating (if quite sad).

Very cool about your mom and the Marx Brothers, Leslie! I actually knew that quote was Groucho too. But I used to vaguely think that the (very apt) line "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" was by the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Then I learned it was Mark Twain. At least supposedly. I just googled it and found a Twain Quotes website (http://www.twainquotes.com/SanFrancisco.html) that says "This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic."

12:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


There are also the famous quotes that are frequently misquoted. Like (having just seen a quite wonderful Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), "I knew him well, Horatio" instead of the actual line which is "I knew him, Horatio." Or "Play it again, Sam," which no one in Casablanca actually says (I think Ilsa says "Play it, Sam, play 'As Times Goes By'".

12:04 PM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

One I run across cited as fact from otherwise reputable sources is the supposed Wellington quote that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Which he never said. As best as his biographers can tell, he made some offhand remark when visiting Eton about such-and-such being where he used to sit by himself and daydream when he was a student there. Somehow it got passed from one person to the next and embellished until it reached its current form after his death, and has been attributed to him ever since.

It's a minor thing, I suppose, just one that I always notice because my research has turned me into an expert on and something of a fangirl of Wellington! But I think it's interesting because once you know the quote isn't really his, it tells you a lot about how the Victorian British liked to imagine their immediate ancestors and how quickly the process of distorting history starts.

12:35 PM  

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