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.

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

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)

I Quite Agree With You, But Who Are We Two Against So Many?

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Clarence Rook? Alexander Woollcott? Hesketh Pearson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A playwright feared that his upcoming work was about to flop at the box office. After the surprisingly successful inaugural performance the bewildered playwright appeared on stage. Amongst the resounding cheers there was a barely audible hiss. The playwright addressed the lone detractor:

I quite agree with you, but what can we two do against a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?

George Bernard Shaw has received credit for this line. Would you please explore this popular anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the Chicago, Illinois periodical “The Chap-Book” in November 1896. The Latin phrase “popularis aura” means “popular favor”. Boldface has been added to excerpts by QI: 1

I well remember how at the first night of “Arms and the Man” at the Avenue Theatre, after the audience had been successively puzzled, tickled and delighted, Shaw stepped before the curtain to face the applause. He was tremulous, unnerved, speechless. He looked as though he had expected cabbage stalks, and was disappointed. Suddenly a man in the Gallery began to hoot.

Shaw was himself again at once. He opened his lips, and amid the resulting silence he said, looking at the solitary malcontent. “I quite agree with my friend in the Gallery — but what are two against so many?” A single breath of opposition braced his energies. For Shaw is like the kite, and can rise only when the popularis aura is against him.

British journalist Clarence Rook penned the passage above, and apparently he directly witnessed Shaw deliver the line. The comedy “Arms and the Man” was first staged in April 1894 in London. Thus, Rook’s description appeared two years after the event. An earlier citation may exist, but QI has not yet uncovered it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Quite Agree With You, But Who Are We Two Against So Many?

Notes:

  1. 1896 November 1, The Chap-Book Semi-Monthly, Volume 5, Number 12, George Bernard Shaw by Clarence Rook, Start Page 529, Quote Page 539 and 540, Herbert S. Stone & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

I Am Pleased To Believe That You Like the Piece Almost as Much as I Do Myself

Oscar Wilde? Louise Jopling? Hesketh Pearson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: After the enormously successful debut of a comedy by Oscar Wilde the audience demanded that the playwright deliver a few words. His speech included a comically self-congratulatory line that was similar to the following:

You think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.

Would you please help me to locate a citation and determine precisely what Wilde said?

Quote Investigator: On February 22, 1892 “The Morning Post” of London printed a review of Oscar Wilde’s new play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which the paper said “was received with great favour”. The curtain was “thrice raised”, and the theatergoers were eager to hear remarks from Wilde. He began as follows: 1

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe it is the privilege of an author to allow his words to be reproduced by others while he himself remains silent. But, as you seem to wish to hear me speak, I accept the honour you are kind enough to confer upon me.

Wilde praised George Alexander who produced the show and the performers who brought the story to life. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

I have to thank them one and all for the infinite care they have taken to fill in every detail until the sketch has become a finished picture. I think that you have enjoyed the performance as much as I have, and I am pleased to believe that you like the piece almost as much as I do myself.

The newspaper stated that Wilde’s comments “were received with hearty laughter and applause”. Over the years different versions of Wilde’s speech have been presented, however, QI believes that this contemporaneous account probably provided the most accurate transcription.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Am Pleased To Believe That You Like the Piece Almost as Much as I Do Myself

Notes:

  1. 1892 February 22, The Morning Post, St. James’s Theatre, Quote Page 2, Column 5, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do The Day After Tomorrow Just As Well

Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Josh Billings? Spanish Proverb? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone is guilty of some procrastination.  Even the industrious humorist Mark Twain was credited with a quotation sympathetic to the indolent:

Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Puzzlingly, this same quip has been ascribed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Who said it first?

Quote Investigator: In July 1870 an article by Mark Twain was published in “The Galaxy” magazine. One section of the article expressed unhappiness with the aphorisms popularized by Benjamin Franklin. Twain stated the following desire: 1

… snub those pretentious maxims of his; which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel …

Twain constructed a comical adage that he farcically attributed to Franklin:

Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.—B. F.

This is the earliest evidence QI has found for this type of quip from Twain or Wilde. The word “the” was omitted before the phrase “day after to-morrow”. A similar adage was credited to Oscar Wilde in a biography published in 1946, and the details are given further below. However, this evidence was weak because Wilde died decades earlier in 1900.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do The Day After Tomorrow Just As Well

Notes:

  1. 1870 July, The Galaxy, Memoranda by Mark Twain, Subsection: The Late Benjamin Franklin, Start Page 133, Quote Page 138, W. C. and F. P. Church, New York. (Reprint edition published in 1965 by AMS Press Inc., New York) (HathiTrust) link  link