Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

smith10Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Quips about missionaries and cannibals have a long history. The Anglican cleric and notable wit Sydney Smith was credited with thematically related comments that were printed in an 1848 compilation called “The Family Jo: Miller”. The book’s title was a reference to a well-known long-lived series of joke books that appeared under names such as “Joe Miller’s Jests” and “Joe Miller’s Joke Book” starting in the 1700s.

Sydney Smith (also spelled Sidney) offered cautionary advice to a fellow cleric who was entering New Zealand. Smith died in 1845, so this ascription in 1848 was posthumous: 2

Before the Bishop of New Zealand departed, Sidney Smith, in taking leave, affected to impress upon his friend the dangers of his mission. “You will find,” he said, “in preaching to cannibals, that their attention, instead of being occupied by the spirit, will be concentrated on the flesh; for I am told that they never breakfast without a cold missionary on the sideboard.” In shaking hands with the new prelate as he was leaving the house, the reverend wit added, “Good bye. We shall never meet again; but let us hope that you will thoroughly disagree with the savage who eats you.”

The humor of second quip above hinges on the dual meaning of the phrase “disagree with”; in the domain of food the phrase means to cause physical discomfort or sickness.

In January 1848 a piece in a London periodical called “The Rambler” noted that several newspapers had reprinted the anecdote given in “The Family Jo: Miller”. According to the journal, Sydney Smith’s remarks had been made to Dr. Selwyn, and the doctor replied with a fittingly comical statement: 3

In “justice to Dr. Selwyn,” let his retort be added;—”Good-bye Mr. Canon; you, at any rate, have enough to do with roasting bishops at home.”

In 1907 Richard Le Gallienne asserted that he heard Oscar Wilde deliver an irreverent line about cannibals and missionaries as mentioned previously in the this article:

. . . he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce.

In 1926 Richard Le Gallienne published “The Romantic ’90s” which was about the period of the eighteen-nineties in England. Le Gallienne stated that Wilde’s wife, Constance, was a strong supporter of missionary work, and her close friend Lady Sandhurst was very active in British church work. The anecdote recounted by Le Gallienne was more detailed, and the remarks directed toward Constance were trenchant: 4 5

“Missionaries, my dear!” I remember Wilde once saying at a dinner party. “Don’t you realize that missionaries are the divinely provided food for destitute and under-fed cannibals? Whenever they are on the brink of starvation, Heaven, in its infinite mercy, sends them a nice plump missionary.”

To which Mrs. Wilde could only pathetically exclaim: “Oh, Oscar! you cannot surely be in earnest. You can only be joking.” No one present remarked that the Reverend Sydney Smith had indulged in a like humour when he spoke of “a slice of cold missionary on the sideboard.”

In 1946 the biographer Hesketh Pearson included the anecdote in “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit”. Pearson acknowledged Le Gallienne and the version he recounted matched the one in “The Romantic ’90s”. Pearson used the following statement to introduce the anecdote: 6

Richard Le Gallienne is our authority for a third peep into the Tite Street dining-room.

In conclusion, the first attribution of this quotation to Oscar Wilde appeared in print after his death. Richard Le Gallienne stated that he heard the remark while he was dining together with Oscar, his wife Constance, and others. The accuracy of the tale is dependent on the credibility of Le Gallienne.

Image Notes: Depiction of missionaries in California. Picture of Sydney Smith. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1848, The Family Jo: Miller; A Drawing-Room Jest Book, A Pleasant Valediction, Quote Page 119, Published by Wm. S. Orr & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1848 January 15, The Rambler, Volume 1, Number 3, Justice to Dr. Selwyn, Quote Page 53, Central Publishing Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1926, The Romantic ’90s by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 251, Published by Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Questia)
  5. 1951, The Romantic ’90s by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 144 and 145, Published by Putnam & Company, London. (First published 1926; new edition 1951)(Verified on paper)
  6. 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 105, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)