The origins of a famous quip – in a half-forgotten work of literature
This should be an easy question. Surely it was Oscar Wilde who first said, ‘I am not young enough to know everything’? It certainly sounds like one of Wilde’s witty quotations, and numerous quotation sites (see, for instance, here and here) attribute the line to Wilde, but the attribution predates the web, with James Scott’s Daily Writing Journal in 1987 giving Wilde as the author. But it appears the issue is a little more complicated than that. And the true origins of this quotation lie in a play by a writer best-known for a work of children’s literature.
The line ‘I am not young enough to know everything’ isn’t found anywhere in Wilde’s literary works, whether it’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (it does sound like the sort of thing Lord Henry Wotton would come out with) or The Importance of Being Earnest. What’s more, there’s no hard-and-fast evidence that Wilde uttered this quip in conversation. A line quite similar to it, though, does appear in ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’, a series of pithy axioms which were published in the Oxford student magazine The Chameleon in December 1894, not long before Wilde’s downfall. In that series of quotable lines can be found: ‘The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.’
That’s the closest we get to the quotation in question in Wilde’s own published work. However, there was another playwright – of Scottish rather than Irish origin – whose plays would become popular in the wake of the Wilde trials of 1895. His name was J. M. Barrie, most famous for writing Peter Pan; we’ve previously collected together some interesting facts about J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan here. But in that post we didn’t get around to mentioning the play that, along with Peter Pan, remains Barrie’s best-known. (There is another Barrie play, Quality Street, whose name has been immortalised in the name of the chocolates, but the play itself is not really remembered now.) This other play of Barrie’s which remains vaguely popular is The Admirable Crichton (1902), a comedy about a well-to-do family who find themselves shipwrecked on a desert island, and survive thanks to the sangfroid of their butler, the eponymous Crichton. (In the original 1902 production of the play, which opened on 4 November of that year, the role of Crichton was played by Harry Brodribb Irving, son of Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted.)
In The Admirable Crichton, Ernest – a revealingly Wildean name – tells Agatha ‘I’m not young enough to know everything.’ This causes consternation among those present: the stage direction informs us, ‘his brilliance baffles them’. Agatha, bemused, asks, ‘Young enough?’ Ernest repeats the line, but Agatha remains confused by the paradox: ‘I’m sure it’s awfully clever, but it’s so puzzling.’ Ernest then repeats the line to the clergyman Mr Treherne, who responds by saying, ‘What you really mean, my boy, is that you are not old enough to know everything.’ Ernest maintains that they are failing to understand him, and is only satisfied when Crichton, the butler – no doubt in an effort to humour the young aristocratic Ernest – smiles at him as if to confirm he has understood Ernest’s pithy quip.
The character of Ernest was played by Gerald du Maurier, who, as well as being the son of fascinating novelist and cartoonist George du Maurier and father of Daphne du Maurier, was also the uncle of the real-life inspiration for Peter Pan, Peter Llewellyn-Davies. ‘Ernest’ may be a name that, in 1902 especially, would suggest ‘Wilde’ to London theatregoers and his relatively recent disgrace and decline; but in Barrie’s play Ernest has the somewhat less Wildean surname ‘Woolley’, suggesting, perhaps, woolly thinking and a man whose wits are not as sharp as he would like to think. The character is something of an aristocratic dandy, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the character is in part a playful mockery of the Wildean figure who had appeared on London stages a few years before – in, for instance, Wilde’s own The Importance of Being Earnest. In The Admirable Crichton, it is the non-aristocratic and pragmatic butler who saves the day; all of the well-born, well-dressed, and well-educated characters prove themselves to be useless. (Later in the play, Crichton will try to get Ernest to kick his habit of coming out with tired old epigrams by sticking his head in a bucket of water whenever he utters one.)
In short, then, we might say that Barrie self-consciously uses the line ‘I am not young enough to know everything’ in order to invoke Oscar Wilde, but ultimately The Admirable Crichton rejects the Wildean posturing of Ernest (whose desperate repetition of his quip ends up coming across as anything but louche and witty) in favour of the resourcefulness shown by the man of humbler origins, the butler Crichton. It was Barrie who coined the line, not Wilde, but the misattribution to Wilde is understandable and, somehow, what Barrie would have wanted: it points to his skill in pinpointing the paradoxical style of the Wilde one-liner.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like our post about the origins of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
Image: Oscar Wilde, author unknown, public domain.
Good to know! It really does sound like Wilde, though, so Barrie get’s an “A+” for recognizing and copying style.