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with a perfectly satisfactory result, glean the good sayings of others.
"A jest's prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it." A punster or a wit may not be, and probably is not, the best judge of puns or of wit. It is better that the gatherer of these things should stand on neutral ground, and not be one of the cloth; and besides, there is the danger that he may smuggle in too many of his own pleasantries, and print only other men's second best by way of a foil.
The present collection, exclusively of a considerable body of matter which will be found to be new to the general reader, embraces the best portion of nearly thirty jest books, which have been specially examined for the purpose, and of which the contents were believed to be in many instances little known, except to those who have made this branch of literature their particular study. It has often happened also that the Editor, by comparing different texts (so to speak) of the same story or joke, has been enabled to give a better and more accurate version than that commonly accepted. There is no cause, after all, why a performance of this
class, second-rate or third-rate as its literary importance and value may be held to be, should not have the benefit of all the care and reading which may be at the editor's command; and many excellent anecdotes are completely marred, as they pass current, by some misprint or error of transcript, allowed to stand in impression after impression, and copied from one book into another. That the volume now offered to the public will prove absolutely free from such blemishes, it would be futile even to trust; but an unusual degree of care has been observed in the hope of reducing them to a minimum.
It may be pointed out that many of the anecdotes which are extant, purporting to represent incidents of a humorous character in the lives of distinguished persons, are, in an historical sense, totally unworthy of credit, and mainly, if not altogether, apocryphal. The stories related of Ben Jonson, and (coming nearer to our own time) Sheridan and the elder Mathews, are in many cases certainly, and in others very probably, nothing but fabrications for the nonce. A great portion of the plea
santries and witticisms reported of Jonson do not seem to be of higher antiquity than the middle of the last century, while some of the good things imputed to Sheridan and Mathews occur in compilations published two hundred and fifty years ago. One or two of Sydney Smith's jests I have found in a book printed almost before he was born; and the well-known "Bill Stumps's" hoax in Dickens's "Pickwick" was forestalled in the "School for Wits," 1813, where a similar piece of deception is recorded. The joke in the Spectator about Mr Finis, which has its counterpart in the French valet's profound mystification at the literary fecundity of Monsieur Tome, is traceable back at least to 1639; and the tale of the scholar who could prove by sophistry that two eggs were three, after appearing for the first time in a jest book of 1526, were transplanted into the "Jests of Scogin," and was told of this person and the other till it is altered to suit Charles II., Nell Gwynne, and the Duchess of Portsmouth, in a facetious publication of the time of the Second George.
The task of Editorship has not, perhaps, in the
present case been a very trying one; and in point of fact, there has been an intentional abstinence from anything in the shape of note or commentary; for it was apprehended that to the class of readers for whom the following pages are designed, illustrative matter would scarcely prove acceptable, but rather be viewed in the light of an unwelcome encumbrance to the text.
It only remains to be added, that the two short Papers, which introduce the main subject-matter, are reprinted, by permission, from All the Year Round, to which they were contributed by the W. C. H.
editor some years ago.