(Yeah, it's another long one. Sorry. If anyone ever makes it all the way through this, I will first faint, then give you a prize.)
Someone else has written these words. Have I stolen these words? I am thinking about the concept of stealing words? Someone else has thought about stealing words. Am I stealing those thoughts?
In the middle of World War I , disillusioned by the fighting and violence of men and full of thoughts of history’s neglect of women and their role in history, Florence Deeks set out to write a history of the world. Not just any history of the world, but one that emphasized women, love, and the influence of both. Miss Deeks was in late middle-age. She was from a good family and lived in a house in a nice Toronto neighborhood with her sisters and widowed mother. Her brother George, wealthy from engineering and construction interests, supported the women in his family. Miss Deeks had earlier taught history and languages to proper young ladies, but by the time of the war she had become one of those genteel type of women who attends lectures, belongs to art clubs, and works for various causes. All this kept her relatively busy, but it was the writing of her history (or, as some undoubtedly would call it, “herstory”) that she hoped would give meaning to her life.
Sometime in late 1918, novelist H.G. Wells began to contact his publishers about his idea for a world history written for the popular audience—schoolchildren, armchair historians, collectors of large, important looking books. H.G. Wells wasn’t a professional historian, but proposed that he would supplement his own work with the input of a field of respected experts.
But earlier that summer, in July, 1918, Miss Deeks had begun to submit her own world history (now titled, The Web of the World's Romance) to publishers. She was particularly interested in getting it to editors at Macmillan of Canada, not just because they were big publishers who she would like to buy her manuscript, but because she had quoted frequently from a history book published by Macmillan and wanted to make sure her use of the quotes was fair and legal. The editor she spoke with, John Saul, took her manuscript and promised to take a look at it.
Like many unknown writers before and after her, Florence Deeks waited, frustrated and unknowing, for months and months to hear about her manuscript. Finally in early 1919, she got in contact with Macmillan, was told that Saul was gone and her manuscript was rejected. She got it back in April. The manuscript was in bad condition, with pages dog-eared and heavily thumbed over.
This didn’t seem to mean much at the time, but in 1920, Florence Deeks read about a new history of the world by H.G. Wells—published by Macmillan. She bought a copy, read it, and found remarkable resemblances in it to her own manuscript. Over the next few years, Miss Deeks wrote up her own list of similarities. She submitted it to independent scholars to have them evaluate the two books and finally, in 1925 filed suit against a number of parties, including Wells, Macmillan of Canada and Macmillan in New York and London.
A.B. McKillop’s The Spinster and the Prophet (please, no jokes about the title...I’m not really a prophet) is the story of Florence Deeks’ long and ultimately fruitless fight to prove that Wells had access to her manuscript and used it to help write his best-selling The Outline of History. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce-like case ran through numerous lawyers, expert witnesses, and venues, both in Canada and London. While Miss Deeks had detailed, specific but circumstantial evidence to spare, the case ultimately turned on very blunt physical facts.
Deeks and her experts showed that the outline and ideas of both books were startlingly alike. Obviously a history of the world is a big subject and anyone tackling it is going to make decisions about what is or is not going to be covered. The probability of two people making the exact same decisions is pretty small, yet Deeks found that Wells chose to focus on much of the same material as she. The experts who analyzed both manuscripts noted not only the frequent similarity of their chosen areas but also the peculiar nature of what they chose to omit. Both passed over the important Middle Kingdom era in their discussions of Ancient Egypt; both ignored Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in the 18th century. Now both Deeks and Wells were amateurs so it’s no surprise that either one would have made poor choices of material. But what is the likelihood that an English man from a lower-class family, best-known for writing science fiction novels and social reform stories would be interested in the same topics as an upper-class, genteely educated lady from Toronto?
Another similarity was mistakes that they made. While going over her own manuscript before Wells’ book was published, Deeks had found errors that were peculiar to the source material she used. When she read Wells’ book, she found the same errors but no citation on Wells’ part of the history books that she had used, nor, upon any examination, any indication that he had any knowledge of them.
Finally, Deeks focused on two other problems. One was the speed in which Wells produced his book. He proposed it in late 1918, yet the book, two volumes of over 400,000 words was in stores about eighteen months later. It would be a monstrous feat for a professional historian to do the research, let alone the writing, for a book of such large scale in that amount of time, let alone a completed manuscript written by someone with about a junior high student’s knowledge of world history.
The other problem was the mystery of why Deeks’ manuscript was returned to her in such bad condition and worse, that no one could account for its whereabouts during the eight months MacMillan of Canada had it. Deeks could not prove by any means that the manuscript had been sent to England, where Wells worked on his book. However, detailed questioning by Deeks’ lawyers, revealed that MacMillan of Canada could not account either prove that the manuscript had remained in Canada.
MacMillan’s response to the suit hinged on two major points. One was an oversimplification of the idea of plagiarism, that is that there weren’t many instances where the words in the manuscript were identical; the ideas and omissions in both manuscripts may have been similar, but after all, history was history, these events happened, and obviously other historians had made some of these errors. The other was that, indeed, no one could prove that Wells had ever seen or known about Deeks’ manuscript. In the decisions by all the judges who heard the case, this was the most frequently cited fact against Deeks and her case.
Unspoken was another reason for siding with Wells—he was an eminent, prolific author and MacMillan was a well-respected publishing house. Deeks, on the other hand was a nobody, an unpublished author, an amateur historian, and most damning of all, a peculiarity in society—an unmarried, childless woman, thus someone obsessed by this manuscript, the one thing in the life of this obviously sad, empty, frustrated spinster.
McKillop (yes, I know, I’m finally getting to the book itself) focuses on the differences between these two. It is Deeks herself who points out in one of her appeals (strapped for money, she eventually took to representing herself) that Wells, although he might be famous, had led a less than circumspect life. McKillop covers in great detail Wells’ many, many affairs, the illegitimate children he left scattered with these mistresses, his shocking at the time belief in sexual freedom, as expressed in his novels. Wells proclaimed to have feminist attitudes, but his treatment of the women in his life, most particularly his wife, showed that he only really cared for women in terms of how he could use them. He was all for sexual freedom so that women could be available to him; he was all for being able to do this while married so he could have a wife who provided a comfortable home for him.
McKillop spends a great deal of time on Wells’ wife. Amy Catherine Robbins was actually Wells’ second wife; upon meeting Miss Robbins, Wells decided he’d had enough of his current wife, his young cousin Isabel, and divorced her to marry, as she was known, Catherine. Wells took to calling his new wife Jane. This is of huge, gigantic significance to McKillop. As he describes it, Catherine was the free-spirited, passionate, intelligent woman Wells married, but by calling her plain Jane, Wells made her into a safe domestic slave who existed to take care of his needs. This means that when describing Wells and his relationship with his wife, McKillop does things like shift between the two names to emphasize his point, as in (my example, sorry had to return the book!), “Catherine sat at her desk, writing poetry. When Wells called, Jane got up and crossed the living room to bring him the copy of the manuscript she had typed.” Aaah haaa…do you get the point? Poor wild, passionate, neglected Catherine! Poor domesticated Jane!
(Let me just take a moment here to mention McKillop’s annoying decision to fictionalize unknown moments. He informs readers in his forward that he’s going to do this, announcing that he felt the need to dress up the narrative by going into imagined descriptions of things like the Deeks family playing the piano and singing together, editors at MacMillan sitting around and discussing things with brandy in hand on wicker chairs in a twilight shadowed, garden, etc., etc. I’m not sure which is sadder, that he he doesn’t realize that the actual story is strong enough to stand on its own without all this drivelly false detail or that he doesn’t believe readers can remain interested in nonfiction without novelizing it.)
This way of portraying Catherine/Jane is very, very important to McKillop. He is, in effect, saying that Wells defined Catherine/Jane. By renaming her and keeping her in her place as his domestic slave all her life, he wrote her history, and that that was the same relationship he had with Florence Deeks, because she too, became known through her lawsuit and became defined by her relationship with Wells. Instead of Florence Deeks, author and historian, she was Florence Deeks, crank, spinster, frustrated old woman who harassed important man Wells with her silly claims. The point is that this was the lot of women at the time, and the failure of Deeks’ case was most likely due in large part to the fact that she was a woman.
But although McKillop’s sympathy for Catherine/Jane is clear, oddly enough, he seems to spend more time on her than on Florence. The “spinster” is a very real person making very real statements in endless transcripts of the court case. McKillop embellishes her to some degree, but can only go so far because the Miss Deeks of the transcripts is vital to the book. When it comes to Catherine/Jane, though, McKillop bemoans the fact that she is defined by Wells and his biographers, but he also constructs his own version of her to suit his needs. Does this make him any less culpable than Wells? We still don’t know the real Catherine/Jane, just McKillop’s version of her, and he appears to be a lot more interested in concocting the imagined Bronte-esque Catherine and Jane than dealing with the real, ordinary Florence.
The story is an interesting one, especially in terms of plagiarism and what constitutes a stolen idea. Did Wells steal from Deeks? Do you steal words? Do you steal structure? McKillop presents his theory for how the manuscript might have ended up in Wells hands as part of a scheme of desperate Macmillan executives and of course the ever compliant Jane. He points out (rather late in the book for my taste, I must admit) the fact that the prolific Wells seemed to have "borrowed" material throughout his career. All of this makes for good reading and on that, I’d recommend this book.
But although the case itself is fascinating and worth re-examining, the presentation bothered me. As noted, the fictionalizing of unknown moments was just not necessary. I could have used less Wells--he was a womanizer, all right. I didn't need a rehash of every affair and the plot of seemingly almost every one of his books to get the point that he was frustrated in his marriage and relationships with women. And there was something about the solicitousness and seriousness of this Catherine/Jane construct that particularly suffocated and annoyed me, the care and civility of it all. It gave me the uncomfortable feeling of being stuck at a particularly earnest women’s book club meeting where all the books have titles like The Barrelmaker’s Wife, or She: Her Book, where all the stories are reduced to things like patriarchy and matriarchy and the roles of women and the viewpoints of women and masculine worlds reimagined through the eyes of women and where the word empowered is used many times and the women in the group nod supportively and offer each other support and drink organic wine and knit with environmentally friendly yarn as they listen and nod and where I would want to scream and cry and break things and throw myself into the ocean to fight the tides and sea monsters and sharp-tongued waves.