Not long ago, I told Peter that I was mad—mad—I tell you . . . under circumstances I no longer recall (general bleariness from overuse of BookFinder.com, probably). As I said the words, it occurred to me that they sounded awfully nineteenth-century, as if from a speech Edwin Forrest might have delivered.
They weren’t in my Bartlett’s, and Google was useless, not because the phrase doesn’t appear, but because it appears too often. This morning, for example, there are 866 webpages using the phrase, and although the number confirms that the phrase is a common property now, the results fail to indicate whom it was stolen from originally.
I found the answer in the Chadwyck-Healey for-pay database Literature Online, by using the exact phrase search, a function they make hard to find. (To get to it, you have to search for a phrase within quotes, and when that search fails, click a special button that only then pops up.) The wonderful thing about the database is that all the texts are dated; I think Donald Foster first explained to me the advantage of this, when I interviewed him, many years ago.
Anyway, the phrase seems to have come from Within an Inch of His Life, a melodrama by James A. Herne first staged in 1879. I hope it won’t disappoint anyone too grievously if I confess that I was able to resist reading the thing through. Here’s the money shot:
Jules de Dardeville. You wanted to be free that you might prevent me from breaking the chains in which you held me. At our last meeting, when I thought you were crushed by grief, and was softened by your hypocritical tears—your anger, which I mistook for love—I was weak enough to say “I marry Dionysia only because you are not free.” Then you cried “Oh, God! How lucky it is that thought never entered my brain before!” What thought? Come! Answer me! Confess!
Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. Confess?
Jules de Dardeville. Aye! That thought was murder!
Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. I was mad—mad—I tell you, with jealousy and anger! I have outraged and destroyed my husband’s honor! But to murder him! Bah! You accuse me of what you know to be a lie!
Jules de Dardeville. Then, madam, as you say—if you are innocent, who could be guilty?
[Countess sinks in chair with horror]
Jules de Dardeville. [Bitterly] You act your part well!
I don’t hear any silent finger-quotes around the Countess de Clairnot’s use of the phrase—she seems to be doing her best impression of sincerity—so I’m guessing this is the primal scene. (Of course, if anyone should find the phrase in print in 1878, please write!) Edwin Forrest appears to be not guilty.
UPDATE, 19 April 2008: The resourceful Paul Collins has pushed the date of origin back to 1855.