History of Intellectual Culture, 2005
Volume 5, No. 1
At the end of July 1918, Florence Deeks stepped off the streetcar at Yonge and Dundas Streets, carrying a bulky package under her arm. . . Florence could see St. Michael's Cathedral at the first intersection, not far from Massey hall.
The building she wanted was number 70, and she found it standing proudly between the offices of Presbyterian Publications and a house once lived in by the fiery Upper Canadian rebel William Lyon Mackenzie. (112)
By this time, McKillop's writing strategy is well established. For each segment of Deeks's life as author or litigant, McKillop gives a parallel segment from Wells's (or his wife's or mistresses') life/lives.
McKillop's strategy changes as he comes to the frustrating and frustrated suit of Florence Deeks against H.G. Wells for plagiarism (184-377). McKillop then takes a narrative and chronological view of Deeks's long search for "justice." Her grounds were that The Web had been deposited at the Toronto branch of Macmillan, that it had been sent secretly - de modo occulte - to the London office of the firm, that Wells or his helpers made free use of The Web's form and content to make quick progress with their own Outline of History, and that the manuscript of The Web had been returned to Toronto just in time for Macmillan Toronto to formalize its refusal to publish Deeks. McKillop's narrative of the documentation for this version of events, and for Wells's contrary version, and of the trial and appeals afterward, is detailed and well written.
For non-lawyers, as most of McKillop's readers will be, it might have been "trying" to follow the legalities. McKillop keeps it interesting. We have the needful details of the examinations for discovery in 1928, then a description of the trial in 1929 in the Supreme Court of Ontario, the appeal to the Court's Appellate Division, the appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, to the Law Lords, and, at last to the Home Office secretary. But by page 184, McKillop has given us reason to empathize with Florence Deeks, her sister Mabel, her patient and financially crucial brother George, and the whole Deeks family.
We discover that some of Macmillan's, one especially, was a fraud artist. At trial, we meet members of the historical profession who illustrated high standards of reason and criticism, but we also meet others who did not. The scarcely-remembered Lawrence Burpee, Bertram Windle, and W.A. Irwin took their turns, as did the much-recollected Frank H. Underhill (331-9). In McKillop's careful account, none of these men (all of them men, of course), comes off terribly well. The Spinster and the Prophet offers, along with much else, a thorough and convenient survey of the theory and practice of copyright and intellectual property, which alone would justify buying and reading the work.
It's clear by the end (408) that nobody - judges, lawyers, historians - had a firm grip on either the theory or the practice of intellectual property, and that Florence Deeks's legal tangles with Wells were doomed. Her "voice" was at any rate almost inaudible from start to finish. Once her case reached the stage of pure legalism, that is, from the first stage of appeal onward, she had little hope of success. The key moments were at the first trial, at Osgoode Hall in 1929. After that, Deeks was in for it, seen as "obsessed" by her hopeless cause. She could rely on her family and few others, a circumstance that must have encouraged McKillop to write a whole chapter (378-408) on problems of voice, authority, and power, complete with his own reconstruction of what may have happened in 1919-1920 at Macmillan. McKillop's use of sometimes rebarbative and theory-laden feminist work in history is impressive and stimulating. Here again, McKillop has done a service to the field and for the public, writing so as to invite the scrutiny and participation of generally-educated readers, not just historians.
Although the book could have done with another edit (McKillop's two-hundred-page treatment of Deeks and Wells at various trials might have been shortened), it is still good historical writing. It falls under two great traditions. The first is the tradition of history-as-reconstruction. Think for a moment of Garrett Mattingly's stunning books on The Defeat of the Spanish Armada and on Renaissance Diplomacy.10 In the Armada, one is taken direct to the overheated courts and fields of sixteenth-century Castile, made to hear imagined conversations and to accept descriptions of physical circumstance for which there are not (and could not) be direct evidence. In Renaissance Diplomacy, the putative whisperings of emissaries from the Doge, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Kings of two dozen countries are relayed as if on page 2 of yesterday's Le Monde Diplomatique. Mattingly's mastery of archives and documents is such that the reader hesitates only for a moment, then engages with Mattingly's argument.
So it is with Florence Deeks, stepping off her streetcar in July 1918. There can be no evidence for Deeks's exact actions and feelings on that day, but one feels enough trust in McKillop's work to go along with his slight-of-hand. It is a bracing experience, and in the end, I am far less sympathetic than he to his subjects, especially to Deeks. Still, one reads willingly and for good reason, right to the end.
Secondly, the book illustrates an even older tradition, that of detailed document criticism. One thinks of Acton's and Ranke's sceptical treatments of various papal claims to Piedmont,11 Mason Wade's treatment of Lower Canadian claims to judicial powers in the 1850s, and their like. McKillop's dissection of trial transcripts, especially in light of his successful disinterment of the parties' previous actions and lives, is a good example of work in the Actonian-Rankean spirit.
At the outset, the motives of these two protagonists were not all that different. Like Arthur Mee, Naomi Mitchison, and the rest, Deeks and Wells were participants in a grand chapter of publishing and cultural history. They had each their gospel to preach, and each had a living to earn. Deeks cared more for her gospel than for money, one might say, where Wells cared for both. McKillop has, in the end, given us a study in historical psychology. His methods may not fit every case, but they work well enough for The Spinster and the Prophet.
1. Arthur Mee, ed. The Children's Encyclopaedia (London: Grolier, 1925), ten vols.; in many later editions in the United Kingdom - and in the United States - these were known as The Book of Knowledge (New York: Grolier, 1920 and afterward). There were ten-, fifteen-, and twenty-volume versions of the Encyclopedia, whose sales were astronomical until the advent of competitive works in the 1950s. As a work of education and autodidacticism, Mee's volumes must have shaped the minds and attitudes of many millions of children, especially in the old British Empire. It deserves far more research, as a contributor to the history of world culture, and as a force in the history of education.
2. Naomi Mitchison, ed., An Outline for Boys and Girls and their Parents (London: Victor Gollancz, 1932), pp. 932. Mitchison's collaborators, more than two dozen of them, were all well-reputed writers and scholars in some fifteen fields of art, social science, history, and the natural sciences. The Outline was remarkable for its graphics, but its text was, to that eleven-year-old boy, far too difficult.
3. H.G. Wells, An Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man. Rev. ed. R. Postgate (New York: Garden City Books, 1956), two vols., pp. 996, continuously paginated. First edition: (London: George Newnes, 1919), in twenty-four bi-weekly parts; first one-volume edition, (London: Macmillan, 1920); most recent edition, ed. E. Barker: (London: Low-Price Publications, 1999) in one volume, pp. 753.
4. H.C. Knapp-Fisher, Outline of World History for Boys and Girls (London: Routledge, 1931), pp. 445.
5. Cf. W.T. Ross, H.G. Wells's World Reborn: The Outline of History and its Components (Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania; London: Associated University Presses, 2002)
6. Viz. Bertrand Russell, The ABC of Relativity (London: Unwin, 1925), and ibidem, The Scientific Outlook (London: Unwin, 1931).
7. Stanley Unwin, The Truth About a Publisher: An Autobiographical Record (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 157-8.
8. Naomi Mitchison, You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1979), 169-70.
9. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H.G. Wells: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 318ff.
10. Garrett Mattingly, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (London: Jonathan Cape, 1949); and ibidem, Renaissance Diplomacy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1955).
11. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, Lectures on Modern History, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1906), and Acton's references therein to Ranke.