A few days ago, on 28 February, it was the centenary of the death of Henry James. His dying words are said to have been “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing”. In true Jamesian style, he went out with a well-shaped and interesting sentence.
It is fascinating to look at the dying words of men and women who have gained their fame from words. Chekhov died after downing a glass of champagne, which is not a bad way to go – his last words were “It is some time since I drank champagne” (I hope it was a fine vintage). His fellow Russian, Tolstoy, died asking how the peasants die, perhaps hoping to emulate them?
Robert Louis Stevenson, who was making a salad, suddenly clutched his head and asked “Do I look strange?”, before collapsing on his verandah; while James Joyce asked hopelessly “Does nobody understand?”. Byron was properly poetic when he died in Missolonghi: “Come, come, no weakness; let’s be a man to the last”, and Dr Samuel Johnson lapsed into Latin and stated “Iam moriturus” (I am who about to die). Henrik Ibsen, whose nurse had just told him he looked better, died insisting “On the contrary!”. American short story writer O. Henry ended his life with the request “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark”; Voltaire’s last words were to a priest – “Now my good man, this is no time for making enemies”; Goethe asked for “more light”; while J.M. Barrie complained “I can’t sleep” just before falling into his eternal slumber. “I must go in – the fog is rising” Emily Dickinson said at the end; Lewis Carroll ordered “Take away those pillows. I shall need them no more”; and I do like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu‘s final summary of her life: “It has all been most interesting”. Of course the best known literary last words are Oscar Wilde‘s “My wallpaper and I have been fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go”.
It is one of my ambitions to stay in L’Hotel in Paris, where the room and wallpaper have both been considerably improved since Oscar’s last days there. His unpaid bill is framed and on display. The trouble is that they cannot be exactly certain which room he died in and it would prove an incredibly expensive business to sleep in every room so that I could state positively that I had slept in the exact room where Oscar died!
I really hope that my own last words will be “That was such a good book”, as I reach out to put down a finished book and to pick up a new one.
Susannah Fullerton: Henry James & Washington Square
Susannah Fullerton: Lost Boys and Lost Girls
Susannah Fullerton: Great works on your ‘to read’ list
Susannah Fullerton: A Walking Tour in the Cévennes
Susannah Fullerton: Do You Ditch or Endure?
Susannah Fullerton: Film adaptations of the classics
Susannah Fullerton: Oscar Wilde at Reading Gaol
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Henry James
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Dr Samuel Johnson
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – J.M. Barrie
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Robert Louis Stevenson
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Lewis Carroll
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Anton Chekhov