Book: The Spinster and the Prophet: H.G. Wells, Florence Deeks and the Case of the Plagiarized Text
Author: A. B. McKillop
Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, feminism
Why Did I Read This Book: Like any book fiend of long term addiction, I often buy books in frenzies. I have no idea where or when I purchased this book, so I no longer know what initially drew me to it. But once I noticed it on my shelf, it still went unread for a couple of years because though I didn’t have any feelings for H.G. Wells one way or the other, I had a feeling that I would have pretty strong feelings once I was finished reading this book. I was correct.
Availability: Published in 2000, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I am not a big science fiction fan, so H.G. Wells, while I certainly read him and was socially aware of him, was not an author for whom I had any great affinity. But it was nevertheless disappointing to realize that he was a completely unlikeable, self-absorbed, trivial, priapic worm. Add to it that he may well have been a plagiarist who stole words knowing the person whose words he stole would likely have no recourse because she was not famous, had little money of her own, and most importantly, because she was a she and not a he, and it would appear H.G. Wells was a vile little man in many respects.
I often do my best to avoid biographies of writers or performers I have any sort of respect for. Like I said, I had little opinion about H.G. Wells before reading this book and knew this book was unlikely to paint him in a favorable light. Yet I was shocked at how much I disliked him at the end. I had once read about his affair with Rebecca West and their child in a different book, but I had no idea how he more or less rubbed his wife’s nose in it, how very young West was when the affair began, how Wells used his literary status and genius as an excuse to fuel and justify his sexual id. I haven’t felt such disappointment learning about the life of a literary figure since I found out what a repellent human being Robert Frost was. At least I had far less literary heart invested in Wells when I read about him.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the book: Florence Deeks, a middle-aged Canadian spinster, began to research and write a history of the world focusing on how women had shaped the world, from ancient matriarchies to the then current roles of women in societies. It took her five years of research and writing, beginning and roughly ending with the first World War. She submitted the manuscript, which she called The Web, to the North American branch of Wells’ publisher, Macmillan. She had long conversations with a particular editor about the book but did not receive it back, rejected, until almost two years had passed. The manuscript, when returned, was a mess, smudged and showed signs of heavy wear, wear that would become crucial in the court case that showed how some of the worn pages contained plagiarized passages. It seems very likely from the evidence that McKillop presents in the book that the editor that Deeks dealt with at Macmillan obfuscated the location of the manuscript and sent it to Wells, who had himself been discussing writing a history of the world. Indeed, Wells, to that point a man who wrote mainly turgid, lightly veiled autobiographies of himself, according to his assertions, managed to write a massively researched book in record time, a book that bore similar amateurish marks as Deeks’ endeavor. Despite many expert witnesses who showed the distinct similarities between Wells’ book and Deeks’ book, despite many appeals, the courts consistently decided against Deeks in her court cases. Wells’ book, The Outline of History, a best-seller then but now largely ignored, made Wells’ fortune secure.
Deeks herself immediately saw similarities between Wells’ work and her own rejected manuscript, similarities that several experts echoed. In fact, the entire outline of Wells’ work echoed her own, unique outline. Moreover, Wells used references to works Deeks had agonized over whether or not she should quote but ultimately did not. That Wells used the same source that Deeks in her inexperience had not cited, himself not citing the author, was particularly damning. That Macmillan could not prove where the manuscript resided when it was in their custody – indeed, there is a record that indicates it was received twice at the office when Deeks only submitted it the once – also lends credibility to Deeks’ belief that Wells altered her manuscript.
The proof that Wells likely did not write his 1,324 page history without pilfering Deeks’ work seems likely on its very face and despite all the compelling examinations of the similarities between the texts, the most damning evidence to me was the timeline involved. Though Wells was an undeniably erudite man, he had only written fictional novels and did not have experience as a historian.
Three of the most experienced and prolific professional historians in the world, James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard and James Henry Breasted, had required several years to research and write their collaborative history of Western civilization. Wells and his ever-faithful wife ventured into their first and only exercise in the writing of history with few research notes and little intensive help from others, and somehow managed to accomplish the task in a span of time so short it beggars the imagination. In mid-November 1918, nothing on the project had advanced as far as the typescript stage. By February 15, 1919, Jane [Wells’ wife] had produced 50,000 to 60,000 words in typed form. Twenty days later her husband… had written between 75,000 and 80,000 [additional] words, researching along the way. At the end of the year, the whole manuscript was complete.
This is all I am going to quote from the book on the topic of the investigations and the trials that compared The Web to The Outline of History. That part of the book is extremely interesting, a sort of literary CSI. But I will say that after reading about the number of bad acts on the part of Macmillan employees, the analysis laid out by Deeks’ witnesses and Wells’ own response to the accusation (attempting to smear Deeks), I believe H.G. Wells stole large parts of the book that made his fortune.
But despite learning about Wells’ nasty and underhanded disputes with literary icons like Henry James and many other acts that shed a bad light on him, his utter need for and complete contempt for women almost overtook the plagiarism claim this book puts forth (and in my opinion, proves). But in a sense, that is what this book is about. The book’s topic is plagiarism in a specific sense, but the overarching theme of this book is how one man, the publishing industry and court system deprived one woman of her voice and work but also deprived all women of having access to a book that would have described their own unique role in history. You see, when Wells plagiarized The Web, he removed all of the work that Deeks did to show how women had indeed played a role in shaping the world. Not content just to steal, he stole the work and stripped it of all its original intent.
Yet worse was the fact that even as ambitious as his plagiarism was, it would never have been possible without the toil of his wife, Jane. Jane, of all the women Wells used in his life, suffered the most. She wasn’t even permitted the luxury of using her own name. He called Catherine Wells “Jane” during their entire marriage, a name she did not encourage but could not dissuade him from using. His two-named wife clearly played a role in getting The Outline of History ready.
By all accounts, Jane Wells, once more a silent voice at a crucial point in her husband’s career, was his saving grace in the creation of The Outline of History. “Without her labour in typing and retyping the drafts of the various chapters as they have been revised and amended, in checking references, finding suitable quotations, hunting up illustrations, and keeping in order the whole mass of material for this history, and without her constant help and watchful criticism, its completion would have been impossible.”
The theme of how Wells played a role in silencing and marginalizing two women is the theme that stuck with me above all the injustice, all the proof of plagiarism, above all the sexual indiscretions and bad behavior on Wells’ part. Even as the reader feels perhaps a modicum of pity for Wells, as he at times was indeed pitiful, this book simply serves to remind the reader that in addition to being a fair science fiction writer, a terrible literary fiction author, a man of many affairs, and probably a plagiarist on more than one occasion, Wells can best be remembered as a man possessing such monumental ego that he would not permit his own wife to have her own name.
The Spinster and the Prophet is meticulous researched, and while it includes recreations of what the author thinks may have happened in some scenes, he makes it clear that he is using this writing approach, and his recreations never seem fanciful or forced. A literary tome about literary crime, it was both erudite and accessible. I enjoyed reading it and definitely recommend it for those out there who enjoy biography, history and a good, down in the dirt expose on what really happens when the socially privileged close ranks.