Charles Dickens? Ellen Pickering? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous English writer Charles Dickens has received credit for a high-flown expression that compares a person’s hopes to a beautiful bloom that should not be spoiled. I have been unable to find this saying in any of his novels, and I have begun to doubt that he crafted it. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1836 the popular English novelist Ellen Pickering published “The Merchant’s Daughter”. Within the book two characters, Lord Clanellon and Florence Lyle, engage in a complex layered dialog. The statement below from Clanellon suggests that he loves Lyle, but he hopes that she will signal her reciprocal feelings before he confirms his love. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“There are hopes the bloom of whose beauty would be spoiled by the trammels of description: too lovely, too delicate, too sacred for words, they should be only known through the sympathy of hearts!”
Florence looked silent amaze, though a faint glow came on her cheek, perhaps from his fixed gaze and a flickering consciousness.
“You do not ask me to explain this hope;—may I not then indulge in the delightful flattery that you understand it without words? that you feel it without explanation? that a sympathy with that hope has revealed its meaning?”
Eventually, Lyle makes clear that Clanellon’s amorous feelings would be unwelcome, and he pivots by indicating that he is not feeling love. Instead, he is simply experiencing happiness and hope; he knows she is also in a wild happy mood:
“I too felt in that same light and happy mood, and that to ask the cause of such a mood would be to mar its beauty.”
The first statement above written by Ellen Pickering has incorrectly been reassigned to Charles Dickens for many years. QI is uncertain how this reassignment occurred, but the discussion accompanying the 1884 citation given further below presents one speculation.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Pickering’s novels were reprinted, so the passage above continued to circulate. For example, the 1845 omnibus “Select Works of Miss Ellen Pickering” included “The Merchant’s Daughter”. 2
Between 1846 and 1848 Charles Dickens published “Dombey and Son” in serial form, and it was gathered into one volume in 1848. Dickens employed the figurative language of a budding flower while describing dashed hopes. The quotations from Dickens and Pickering overlapped thematically but were quite distinct: 3
It is when our budding hopes are nipped beyond recovery by some rough wind, that we are the most disposed to picture to ourselves what flowers they might have borne, if they had flourished . . .
In January 1850 “The Lincolnshire Chronicle” of Lincolnshire, England printed a column called “Varieties” that contained miscellaneous quips, anecdotes, and quotations. The passage from Pickering appeared without attribution: 4
There are hopes, the bloom of whose beauty would be spoiled by the trammels of description: too lovely, too delicate, too sacred for words, they should be only known through the sympathy of hearts.
The above passage was reprinted without attribution in other newspapers such as “The Kings County Chronicle” of Parsonstown, Ireland. 5
In 1862 Pickering’s vivid passage appeared in a compilation from Henry Southgate titled “Many Thoughts of Many Minds: Being a Treasury of Reference Consisting of Selections from the Writings of the Most Celebrated Authors”. Oddly, Southgate decided to credit Dickens. 6
In 1884 the passages from Ellen Pickering and Charles Dickens were combined into a single item and placed into “Day’s Collacon: An Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations, Section: Prose Quotations” compiled by Edward Parsons Day. Dickens received credit for the aggregated quotation. 7
There are hopes the bloom of whose beauty would be spoiled by the trammels of description; too lovely, too delicate, too sacred for words, they should be only known through the sympathy of hearts. It is when our budding hopes are nipped beyond recovery by some rough wind, that we are the most disposed to picture to ourselves what flowers they might have borne, if they had flourished. Dickens.
The existence of this combined form suggests a hypothetical mechanism for the misattribution to Dickens back in 1862. A quotation collector may have gathered Pickering’s quotation without an attribution and Dickens’s quotation with an attribution. The quotations were placed adjacent to one another because of their shared themes either in someone’s personal notes or in a publication. When a prominent name is near an anonymous quotation the words are sometimes inadvertently reassigned to the well-known person.
In conclusion, Ellen Pickering should receive credit for the words she wrote in 1836. The attribution to Charles Dickens has no substantive support, and QI believes it is spurious.
Image Notes: Picture of budding flowers from fietzfotos at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Sherrie Matthews whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Matthews uncovered the crucial 1836 Pickering citation. She also noted that Dickens received credit for the quotation within an 1888 reference work.)
- 1836, The Merchant’s Daughter by Ellen Pickering, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter 9, Quote Page 298, Richard Bentley, London, England. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1845, Select Works of Miss Ellen Pickering, Section: The Merchant’s Daughter, Chapter 9, Quote Page 37, Column 2, E. Ferrett & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1848, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation by Charles Dickens, Chapter 10: Containing the Sequel of the Midshipman’s Disaster, Quote Page 146, John Wiley, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1850 January 25, The Lincolnshire Chronicle, Varieties, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Lincolnshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1850 July 17, The Kings County Chronicle, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Offaly, Parsonstown, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1862, Many Thoughts of Many Minds: Being a Treasury of Reference Consisting of Selections from the Writings of the Most Celebrated Authors, Compiled by Henry Southgate, Third Edition Revised, Section: Hope, Quote Page 292, Column 1, Griffin, Bohn, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1884, Day’s Collacon: An Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations, Section: Prose Quotations, Compiled by Edward Parsons Day, Topic: Hope, Quote Page 385, Column 2, International Printing and Publishing Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩