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)