8

While reading Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale, I came across this quote (emphasis mine):

...Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains.

[Emphasis mine]

Did he actually make this statement, or is it an example of an "unreliable narrator"?

8

The quotation Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains is proverbial and dates to the late 19th century, more or less around Dickens's time. However, nothing like it is found in any of his novels or published letters. If he said it in an after-dinner speech, we have no records of the rest of the speech. Nor do we know when or to what audience he is supposed to have said it.

A close approximation turns up in the work of Dickens's contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. His Life of Frederick the Great (1858), Book IV, Chapter 3, has the following:

The good plan itself, this comes not of its own accord; it is the fruit of "genius" (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all): given a huge stack of tumbled thrums, it is not in your sleep that you will find the vital centre of it, or get the first thrum by the end!

(emphasis added)

The earliest print source that I'm aware of where the quotation occurs exactly as stated in Maugham's 1930 novel is Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887), Part I, Chapter 3, "The Lauriston Gardens Mystery":

"They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains," he remarked with a smile. "It's a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work."

Dickens died a scant seventeen years before this novel appeared in print. If the line is really from him, one would expect Holmes to say something like Dickens said rather than They say, I think. More likely it's just a pithy statement of a sentiment that comes from Carlyle and/or was in the air during the Victorian period.

3

Fred R. Shapiro's The Yale Book of Quotations attributes "Genius . . . an infinite capacity for taking pains" to "Jane Ellice Hopkins, English reformer, 1836–1904" in Work Amongst Working Men ch. 4 (1870). The 1884 fifth edition of that book (with the author's name given as Ellice Hopkins) is available at the Internet Archive, and the quotation can be found on p. 53 (emphasis added):

It is a mistake to suppose that plain and suitable commonplaces will go down with working-men. Working-men emphatically want strong meat, thoughts as racy as their own expressions; they reject sweet pap fit for children. But if any one supposes that my power of speaking to them was a gift that came naturally to me, without any effort on my part, let them, once for all, dispossess themselves of any such idea. Gift, like genius, I often think, only means an infinite capacity for taking pains.

It seems to me that the writer is not coining the definition of genius as "an infinite capacity for taking pains" but rather alluding to it as a familiar saying.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy