One Must Have a Heart of Stone To Read the Death of Little Nell Without Laughing

Oscar Wilde? Ada Leverson? Hesketh Pearson? Leslie Stokes? Sewell Stokes? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Charles Dickens published “The Old Curiosity Shop” in 1841. Nell Trent (Little Nell) was the virtuous child protagonist of the tale. The book was extremely popular, and most contemporary readers were saddened when they learned of Nell’s demise. Yet, some critics have viewed Dicken’s book as overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative. Here are two versions of a paraprosdokian:

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.

This remark has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. The two earliest citations known to QI appeared three decades later.

The biographer Hesketh Pearson wrote the introduction to a collection of Oscar Wilde’s works published in 1930 within the “Everyman’s Library” series. Pearson described the successes of Wilde’s comedies in the 1890’s, and he suggested that the playwright spoke the line during that period. Yet, Pearson did not explain how he learned about the witticism. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It should be added that neither success nor misfortune could impair Wilde’s wit, the peculiar quality of which was exemplified at about this period in his comment on a scene by Dickens: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Also in 1930 author Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s friends, published “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde” which included her reminiscences about her relationship with Wilde. 2 Excerpts from this book were reprinted in “The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933” by Violet Wyndham. The following 1930 text was reprinted in the 1963 book: 3

He never liked even the grotesque part of Dickens. To those who praised Dickens, he said, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’.

Of Max Beerbohm he said, ‘He plays with words as one plays with what one loves’. Adding, ‘When you are alone with him, Sphinx, does he take off his face and reveal his mask.”’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1935 the London periodical “The Bystander” harshly criticized the fictional sleuth Philo Vance and compared him to Little Nell: 4

Mr. Philo Vance, in fact, is a pretentious bore, and his pseudo-cultured conversation gives us a pain. Of the deadly characters in fiction, Mr. Vance is perhaps the deadliest, with the single exception of Little Nell, of whom Wilde remarked so soundly, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

In 1936 the play “Oscar Wilde” by Leslie and Sewell Stokes was staged in London. The following dialog between the characters Oscar Wilde and Charlie Parker appeared in the 1938 Random House edition of the script: 5

PARKER
Dickens ain’t so dusty.

WILDE
No, indeed. One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

PARKER (Seriously)
I don’t remember that one.

In 1946 Hesketh Pearson published the biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit”. Pearson described a conversation between Wilde and actor Fred Terry about Dickens. Pearson presented the quotation, but he did not claim that it was spoken by Wilde to Terry: 6

He probably knew the novels of Dickens a good deal better than Terry did; though the effect of The Old Curiosity Shop on most Victorian readers must have passed him by, for a comment he made on it would not have amused the average Dickensian: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

In 1952 Alvin Redman published “The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde” which included the quotation together with the assertion that Wilde employed it during a conversation: 7

On Charles Dickens:
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. In Conversation.

In 1962 Hesketh Pearson published “Lives of the Wits” which included a chapter about Oscar Wilde. Pearson described an episode during which Wilde was in jail, and he was required to attend a legal proceedings regarding his bankruptcy. Pearson stated that Wilde employed the quotation two years before that episode: 8

. . . he stood in drizzling rain on a station platform handcuffed to two other convicts, the warders looking as depressed as the prisoners. ‘Sir.’, said Wilde to one of the officials, ‘if this is the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts she doesn’t deserve to have any.’ Nothing could quench his humour for long. . . .

About two years before this episode he had spoken with enthusiasm to a lover of Dickens of the master’s amazing creative power, almost moving the other to tears, but he could not resist a final quip: ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell . . . without laughing.’

In 1997 “A Dictionary of Quotations” edited by A. Norman Jeffares and Martin Gray included the quotation. The entry indicated that Wilde employed the statement during a lecture. The accompanying citation pointed to Pearson’s “Lives of the Wits”. Yet, Pearson’s phrasing suggested that Wilde was speaking to one person; hence, the term “lecture” probably caused confusion for readers: 9

[In a lecture on Dickens]
One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
[In H. Pearson, Lives of the Wits]

In 2009 the “Los Angeles Times” printed a review of a television production of “The Old Curiosity Shop”. The reviewer presented the variant of the quotation containing the word “tears”: 10

“The Old Curiosity Shop” is probably the most stickily sentimental of Dickens’ work, known as much for the great Oscar Wilde quip — “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter” — as for its actual story.

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde received credit for the quotation three decades after his death. This long delay reduced the credibility of the ascription. Ada Leverson credited Wilde within a section of recollections contained in her 1930 book, but it was not clear whether she heard the remark directly from Wilde.

Hesketh Pearson credited Wilde three times in separate books beginning in 1930. Pearson was thirteen in 1900 when Wilde died, so his evidence was not obtained directly from Wilde. Pearson does not identify the person who told him about the quotation. Perhaps future researchers will learn more about this topic.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration depicting Nell Trent from the book “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens. Work by illustrator George Cattermole. Image has been resized, retouched, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Terry Teachout whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to twitter discussants Benjamin Dreyer and Joe Keenan.)

Notes:

  1. 1950 (First published in 1930), Plays, Prose Writings, And Poems by Oscar Wilde, Introduction by Hesketh Pearson, Series: Number 858 of Everyman’s Library, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xiii, Publisher: J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1930, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson by Oscar Wilde, Limited edition of 275 copies, Quote Page 42, Duckworth, London. (Not yet verified)
  3. 1963, The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 by Violet Wyndham, Reminiscences by Ada Leverson, 3: Afterwards, Quote Page 119, Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1935 September 4, The Bystander, Volume 127, Issue 1655, Standing By: A Weekly Commentary on One Thing and Another by “The Bystanders”, Sleuths, Start Page 387, Quote Page 389, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1938, Oscar Wilde: A Play by Leslie Stokes and Sewell Stokes, Act One, Scene II, Start Page 37, Quote Page 53, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 14: The Dramatist, Quote Page 208, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1962 (First Printing 1952), The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Alvin Redman, Chapter 6: Literature, Quote Page 84, Alvin Redman Limited, London, England. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1962, Lives of the Wits by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 10: Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Quote Page 242, William Heinemann, London. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1997, A Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by A. Norman Jeffares and Martin Gray, Entry: Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 750, Column 2, Barnes & Noble Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2009 May 2, Los Angeles Times, Whew, after all that, tired like the Dickens by Mary McNamara (Television Critic), Quote Page D16, Column 3 and 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)