Do Not Take Life Quite So Seriously—You Surely Will Never Get Out of It Alive

Elbert Hubbard? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? William J. Crawford? Walt Kelly? Pogo? Pierre Daninos? Alphonse Allais? Julien Green?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a trenchant family of fatalistic sayings concerning the solemnity of life. Here are four examples:

  • Don’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out of it alive.
  • You mustn’t take life too seriously; no one makes it out alive.
  • Don’t take life so seriously, you’ll never get out alive.
  • Why take life so seriously? It’s not permanent.

This notion has been attributed to U.S. aphorist Elbert Hubbard and French essayist and scholar Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore the provenance of this set of expressions?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the December 1900 issue of “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” within an essay by Elbert Hubbard who was the editor of the publication. The text began with a reference to the spiritual dimension of life. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Dear Playmate in the Kindergarten of God: Please do not take life quite so seriously—you surely will never get out of it alive. And as for your buying and selling, your churches and banks, your newspapers and books, they are really at the last of no more importance than the child’s paper houses, red and blue wafers, and funny scissors things.

Why you grown-ups! all your possessions are only just to keep you out of mischief, until Death, the good old nurse, comes and rocks you to sleep. Am I not right?

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle died in 1757, and he received credit for this saying by the 1970s which is rather late. QI has not yet found substantive support for this attribution.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Do Not Take Life Quite So Seriously—You Surely Will Never Get Out of It Alive

Notes:

  1. 1900 December, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Volume 12, Number 1, Editor Elbert Hubbard, Heart to Heart Talks with Philistines by the Pastor of His Flock, Dear Playmate in the Kindergarten of God, Start Page 24, Quote Page 24, The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Just Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Queen Victoria? Lucy Baldwin? Pierre Daninos? Lady Hillingham? Lady Hillingdon? Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a well-known though unreliable anecdote about the guidance offered to brides in the repressive Victorian era. Supposedly, Queen Victoria was asked by one of her newly married daughters about possible carnal activities in the marriage bed. Here are five versions of the response:

Just close your eyes and think of England.
Shut your eyes tight and think of England.
Lie still and think of the Empire.
Lie back and think of the Empire.
Lie still and think of a new way to trim a hat.

I doubt that this story is accurate. Sometimes one of the statements above is presented by a historian as archetypal advice in the 1800s without a specific attribution. Nowadays, these expressions are employed satirically. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Queen Victoria ever made a statement of this type. QI and several other researchers have attempted to trace expressions in this family and found that they started to appear in print in the 1900s and not the 1800s. A book published in 1972 asserted that the first statement was written in a personal journal in 1912, but no researcher has located this journal, and apparently the tale was apocryphal.

The earliest relevant evidence known to QI was published by an influential American newspaper columnist in 1943. 1 Intriguingly, the topic was osculation and not conjugation, and the advice-giver was Lucy Baldwin who was the wife of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Stanley Baldwin’s son tells this story of the day his sister went out with a young man who wanted to marry her. She asked her mother for advice, in case the young man should want to kiss her . . . “Do what I did,” said her mother, reminiscing of the beginning of her romance with the man who was to become Prime Minister, “Just close your eyes and think of England.”

The ellipsis above was present in the original text. This citation was included in two key reference works from Yale University Press: “The Yale Book of Quotations” 3 and “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. 4

It is conceivable that this was a bowdlerized version of a more ribald tale, but QI has not yet located supporting evidence for that hypothesis. An alternative conjecture would hold that the carnal element of this story was modified and amplified over time.

In 1954 “Les Carnets du Major Thompson” was published in French by Pierre Daninos. The following year an English translation titled “The Notebooks of Major Thompson: An Englishman Discovers France & the French” was released in the U.S. The character portrayals in the volume emphasized humor. The French author Daninos asserted that the English character Ursula had been prepared “for marriage in an entirely Victorian spirit”. The expression in the following passage was identical to the one used in the previous citation. Yet, the activity shifted from kissing to intimate coupling: 5

The day before she left home, Lady Plunkwell had delivered her final advice: “I know, my dear, it’s disgusting. But do as I did with Edward: just close your eyes and think of England!” Like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, Ursula closed her eyes. She thought of the future of England.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Just Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Notes:

  1. 1943 May 18, Washington Post, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  2. 1943 May 21, San Francisco Chronicle, Lyon’s Den: Churchill Learned a Vital Lesson from U.S. Magician by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 24, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Alice Hillingdon, Quote Page 359, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 70, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1955, The Notebooks of Major Thompson: An Englishman Discovers France & the French by Pierre Daninos, Translated by Robin Farn, Chapter 8: Martine and Ursula, Quote Page 105, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Originally published in France as Les Carnets du Major Thompson by Librairie Hachette in 1954) (Verified on paper)