Thursday, 23 November 2017

A B McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet (2001)



This is a well-written, absorbing, heartfelt and, in the end, utterly unconvincing book. It's an account by respected Canadian historian A B McKillop of Florence Deeks's prosecution of Wells for plagiary. McKillop takes Deeks's side, assumes Wells's malfeasance, and in effect reprosecutes the case; and in the course of all that he says some undeniable things about the structural sexism of 20th-century British and North American society, the biases that favoured Wells and the forces that worked to marginalise and mock Deeks—the titular spinster, unfamous but with earnest literary ambition, who has, McKillop thinks, unfairly been lampooned as a withered old crank. But although McKillop tells a engaging story, and works hard to argue his thesis, the evidence he presents fails, I think, the common-sense tests of plausibility.

The bare facts of the Deeks case are summarised by that impeccable scholarly resource, Wikipedia. Over a four-year period Deeks wrote an ambitious history of the world designed to foreground the contributions made by women, which she called The Web of the World's Romance. A feminist world history, in effect. In August 1918 Deeks sent the complete MS of this to the Macmillan Company in Canada, ostensibly asking for permission to quote extracts from A Short History of the English People, a book for which they held the copyright, but actually in the hopes they would publish her. These hopes went unrealised: the MS was returned to Deeks either in February or April 1919 (the ambiguity on this point would become an issue at trial), apparently ‘well-thumbed and dog-eared’ and with certain pages marked by having their corners folded over.

Disappointed, Deeks moved on to other writing projects. But when she read Wells's Outline of History (1920) she became convinced it was based on her manuscript. Deeks spent some years, and quite a lot of her brother's money, assembling her case, largely by commissioning reports from various ‘experts’ (even I A Richards was recruited) that listed those passages where, she was sure, Wells had drawn on her prior work. Since there is no unambiguous plagiary—no word-for-word reproduction of whole passages, for instance—this amounted to passages where Wells said similar things to Deeks, selected similar details or arranged them in the same order.

Finally, in 1928 Deeks filed suit against Wells and Macmillan, suing for damages of CDN$500,000. The case was heard in the Supreme Court of Ontario and rejected: trial judge, Mr Justice Raney, described the case as ‘fantastic hypotheses’, ‘solemn nonsense’ and ‘comparisons without significance.’ Deeks appealed this verdict to the Appellate Division of the Ontario Supreme Court, where she represented herself (she had no more money to pay lawyers). Her appeal was likewise dismissed.

That left only one further court of appeal, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (Canada, still part of the British Empire, came under its jurisdiction). Deeks travelled to England to argue her own case before the Judicial Committee on 1 October 1932; on 3 November 1932, the Committee dismissed her appeal, pronouncing that ‘evidence presented on the basis of literary criticism is not admissible in a court of law’. There was no other evidence apart from these submissions by experts on the supposed similarity between select passages in Deeks MS and Wells's book. Indeed, it was sworn on oath at the trial ‘that the manuscript remained in Toronto in the safekeeping of Macmillan, and that Wells did not even know it existed, let alone having seen it.’ This final judgement ‘found no proof of copying, and decided the similarities were due to the fact that the books had similar nature and both writers had access to the same sources.’ Costs were awarded against plaintiff, but although Wells had spent £5000 on legal fees defending himself from Deeks's repeated suits she declared herself bankrupt and he got nothing.

On its face, Deeks's case is not strong. Deeks's book was much shorter than Wells's, contains considerably less data and content, and has a completely different focus (Wells was hardly writing a ‘history via great women’ after all). Setting aside the similarity or otherwise of the disputed passages for a moment (McKillop discusses these in depth, and I'll come back to them) there is the prima facie unlikelihood of the proposed conspiracy to defraud Deeks. We have to imagine a respected Canadian publishing house risking its reputation, and possible prosecution, by secretly sending an obscure woman's unpublishable manuscript all the way across the Atlantic to one the world's most successful, and busiest, authors. McKillop acknowledges that this postage was not recorded in Macmillan's detailed manuscript logbook, as it would have been had the MS been sent through the usual channels. If it was sent, it must have been via some cloak-and-dagger means.

Why would they do this? Not to get a reader's report from Wells: Macmillan didn't use Wells for that work (he was far too famous, and busy), and the firm didn't need expert readers to tell them the MS was patently unpublishable. So why? McKillip believes that, despite being on the other side of the Atlantic and strangers to Wells, two Macmillan employees somehow intuited that he had not given himself enough time to write the 400,000 words of the Outline of History, and sent him Deeks's MS as an unsolicited invitation to cut corners via plagiary. We are to believe they did this despite having no history of prior communication with Wells and not knowing how long his proposed history was liable to be, or how quickly work on it was proceeding. Indeed, they can't even have been sure Wells was writing a history. So far as I can see, the first as-it-were public intimation that Wells was working on the Outline was an interview he gave to the Strand Magazine in which he mentions the project as on-going, but that wasn't published until July 1919, which is much too late for McKillop's purposes (his case is that the MS had been secretly shipped to England, comprehensively plagiarised, and posted back to Canada in time for it to be returned to Deeks in April 1919).

So, yes: McKillop concedes that in late 1918 there could only be ‘rumours’ about the project—‘rumour has it that [Wells] is working on a popular history of the world’ is how he phrases it. He is perfectly upfront that he is speculating without hard evidence, but that doesn't inhibit him: Frank Wise and John C Saul in the Toronto Macmillan office, McKillop says, would have heard rumours of Wells's new project because ‘the transatlantic publishing world’ is ‘collegial’ and that ‘co-publication arrangements require the sharing of confidences, even gossip’ [388]. This rather cuts against the picture of early century publishing adumbrated elsewhere in The Spinster and the Prophet, as a basically cutthroat and piratical dog-eat-dog world, but OK. There is such a thing as gossip in publishing; I can't deny it.

Still, a problem with the ‘co-publication arrangements require the sharing of confidences and gossip’ line is that there was no prior co-publication arrangement for Wells's Outline at Macmillan. Indeed there was no surety that Wells would publish with Macmillan at all; his relationship with the firm had been choppy throughout the nineteen-teens. Macmillan had turned down Ann Veronica on grounds of its immorality, and though the firm encouraged Wells during the writing of The New Machiavelli, in the event Sir Frederick Macmillan personally rejected the title, telling Wells the finished product was not the book they thought it was going to be (‘I feel sure you will agree that the kind of thing we objected to in Ann Veronica is here intensified’). Wells was forced to publish it with John Lane, an individual he personally disliked. Macmillan did publish the later Marriage, but that was not a happy experience for Wells, and he blamed the novel's commercial failure on the firm's lack of promotion. Relations soured.

Where the Outline was concerned, Wells's initial choice for a US publisher was Hodder and Stoughton (Newnes published the UK edition). It was only when Macmillan offered a larger advance that he went with them. There was, in other words, no reason for two Macmillan employees to assume this ‘rumoured’ book of history, of unknown length, would be coming to them anyway. So what could possibly have been going through Wise and Saul's heads in the scenario McKillop hypothecates?
Wise and Saul are well aware that H G Wells has been a Macmillan author, but they know that the author had fallen out with Sir Frederick over poor promotion of one of his novels a number of years back. Might Wells be secured once again to the Macmillan stable if, through some friends in the firm, he is offered ‘The Web’ in the writing of his own history? The Deeks manuscript is not publishable, not yet anyway, but it certainly contains a lot of good material. [The Spinster and the Prophet, 389]
Wise and Saul were not ‘friends’ of Wells (he didn't know them at all); but perhaps McKillop means ‘friends’ in a looser sense. Still, this scenario is frankly hard to believe: McKillop suggests these two men believed they would endear Wells to Macmillan-Canada by sending him, out of the blue, an unpublishably bad feminist history of the world in MS, on the offchance that rumours he was himself writing a History of the World were true, somehow magically, perhaps telepathically, intuiting that this project is too much for Wells to complete in the timeframe he has arbitrarily allotted himself—and that the way out of Wells's bind is mining Deeks's work for the ‘good material’ it contains? Material that Deeks extracted from encyclopedias and history books to which (Wise and Saul would surely assume) Wells also had access? What?

It's not impossible they sent Wells the MS, of course, but it doesn't seem to me a very likely, or a well-motivated action. Doing so exposed them to possible unpleasant consequences, from losing their jobs to prosecution, and exposed them for very vague possibilities of gain. McKillop is clear that they must have known they were acting in a delinquent manner:
An idea takes shape. Saul, no innocent in these matters, will send ‘The Web to England in such a way that it reaches Wells. For obvious reasons it cannot be forwarded through regular channels—through Macmillan's editorial division, for instance. That might involve entry of the author's name and title in the firm's manuscript logbook. The basic problem is who should be selected as the conduit to Wells. Each possibility involves some risk. Directly to Wells? Too dangerous, too much like the direct receipt of stolen goods. [The Spinster and the Prophet, 390]
None of this makes sense. Calling Saul ‘no innocent in these matters’ implies that he was in the regular habit of sending unsolicited manuscripts to authors for them to plagiarise, when in fact he'd never previously done anything of the sort (McKillop explores the shady side of Saul setting up a private company to trade copyrights and giving it the same address as his Macmillan office; but that is as far as his malfeasance goes). And ‘for obvious reasons’ invokes a rather unobvious obviousness. What obvious reasons? Why not send Deeks's work through official channels? That way not only would Wise and Saul be covering themselves against the supposed risk of which McKillop makes so much, but they wouldn't have to pay the postage. Deeks would surely be flattered that the opinion of so eminent a figure as Wells had been sought on her work, and his authority would make the inevitable rejection of the work easier for the press to navigate.

If the answer is: obviousness inheres in the fact that Wise and Saul are sending the MS with the express intention that Wells copy it, then we're bound to wonder why on earth they thought such a plan was a good idea. How would you compose a cover note in such a circumstance? ‘Hey Bertie, you don't know us, but rumour has it you're writing a History of the World, and we bet you're finding you've bitten off more than you can chew, so we're sending you a rubbish unpublished MS some Canadian spinster submitted to us for you to copy?’ Surely there'd be a good chance Wells would immediately return the package, angry at their presumption he was a plagiarist, and shop them to their superiors? Why would they send a manifestly rubbish book to a major writer for him to copy anyway? How could they possibly know that Wells was having difficulty pulling his book together? (I mean, I honestly don't think Wells was having difficulty pulling his book together. McKillop can't accept that a 400,000 word work could be as rapidly composed as the Outline of History was; but I don't think he grasps just how fluent and confident a writer Wells was). Even assuming this unlikely hypothesis, there would be only limited advantage in ingratiating themselves with Wells directly (if this unsolicited invitation to commit a crime could be taken as an ingratiation) since negotiation for the publishing of the work was in the hands of his agent, A P Watt, and not, as had previously been the case, being attended to by Wells himself. If the aim of the crazy plan was to bring Wells back to Macmillan then it was Watt they needed to win over.

Alternatively, if the answer is: since official channels have no record of the book being sent, it must have gone through some shady secret route, we're entitled to invoke okham's razor and suggest that a simpler explanation for that fact is that it wasn't sent at all.

McKillop, really, is hoist on the petard of Deeks's MS having to be two incompatible things at once. On the one hand it is not very good (an unpublishable and overwritten mess, so unimportant in the larger schemes of Macmillan that various testimonials show Macmillan employees struggling to remember anything about it, where it might or might not have been sent). On the other, it is dynamite stuff, the magic panacea that'll provide Wells with copy for the century's bestselling work of history. It's hard to see how it can have been both. It needs to be the latter, surely, for Wise and Saul to take such legal and personal risks in spiriting it secretly to England, but everything else The Spinster and the Prophet says about the work pulls very much in the other direction. I don't know: I haven't read Deeks's Web, and McKillop has. But his account of it doesn't fill me with relish: he calls it ‘not an act of formal scholarship’ and says: ‘written in the elevated style of High Victorian Romanticism, its combination of evangelical enthusiasm and moral umbrage would sit well with few contemporary readers’ [409-10].

So why is McKillip persuaded by Deeks's case? In part I think this is simply that, having worked on the case for many years, he has just grown to like her. This is understandable, and even in a way commendable: there is certainly much to be said for histories that unpack the oppressive structural and personal sexism of 19th- and 20th-century society. But beyond that there are, I think, two things that, so far as McKillop is concerned, tell heavily against Wells. One is just the size and complexity of the Outline, and the fact that Wells wrote it in under two years. As I note above, McKillip simply doesn't buy that one man could manage such a superhuman feat: nigh-on 400,000 closely written words in that kind of timeframe. It is a lot, certainly, and the book that resulted is an amazing thing. But even a cursory look at Wells's output suggests this was perfectly within his capabilities, especially when we consider that he was continually assisted by his wife Jane, who worked tirelessly as research assistant and amanuensis-typist, and who is specifically thanked in the work's preface: ‘without her labour in typing and re-typing 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.’

Wells wrote fast, and was the kind of writer (I'm another, I must say) who worked out what he wanted to say by writing it out, rather than in advance. Court testimony quoted by McKillop suggests that he had completed 125,000 words of first draft by February 1919. The first instalment of the 24-part serialisation was published in November. Wells wouldn't necessarily have needed to have completed the entire book before its early sections were published, but even if we assume he had finished at least a first draft by then then would mean: the creation of 250,000 words over more than eight months, something over 30,000 words a month. A thousand words a day. Perfectly do-able; even a little slow by Wells's standards. And the argument that Wells must have plagiarised because he wrote so many words in such a short space of time is a very slender reed on which to balance a case such as this one. The Experiment in Autobiography (1934) is over 350,000 words long, and Wells wrote that over an equivalent time-frame to the Outline, between late 1932 and the beginning of 1934, whilst Wells was also writing a screenplay. I don't suppose McKillop would argue this book was also plagiarised from an unpublished Canadian MS.

This leaves the last pillar in the plagiarism case: those passages where Deeks determined parallels, not in the exact choice of words so much as in the details selected and the order in which they are presented. This is the nitty-gritty of the whole case, really, and needs to be exampled; so the rest of this post looks at a couple of instances, from Deeks's own submission to the court. McKillop, who can't be faulted on effort, prepared a ‘computerized transcription’ of Deeks's entire MS in order to have it checked against Wells's Outline for plagiarism by a programme developed by two software engineers, but admits they ‘detected no more instances of commonality than those found by Florence Deeks’

So: Deeks's Web contained an account of the Phoenicians that mentioned their seafaring trade, and they way they brought all sorts of luxuries to Europe including ivory, pearls and silk. Wells also treats of the Phoenicians, but although the two passages had no common phrases or repeated expressions (‘Wells was after all a wordsmith with an extraordinary vocabulary’ is McKillip's excuse here) Deeks nonetheless became certain the Englishman had copied her account into his book, and made the following list to prove it:


Some of this looks like a list of specific differences rather than plagiarised commonalities: ‘pottery and porcelain’ are not the same as ‘glassware and purple’; in Deeks the women are skilled, in Wells the men have learned to weave and so on. Otherwise these are the standard points any broad-brush historian summarising the Phoenicians is liable to make, surely; as you can see by comparing any of the many nineteenth-century general histories, like George Park Fisher's Outline of Universal History (1885)—‘Through the hands of Phoenician merchants passed the gold and pearls of the East, the purple of Tyre, slaves, ivory ...' and so on—or Samuel Griswold Goodrich A History of All Nations: From the Earliest Periods to the Present (1855), or ... well, any of them really. Isn't it more likely that Wells was drawing on these sorts of books and encyclopedia entries, than that he was plagiarising Deeks?

Or take this instance, again selected by Deeks herself, and endorsed by McKillip. A paragraph from The Web:
But notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the Greeks they still preserved their national unity by means of the institutions of the past—their language, religion, games, Amphyctionic councils and oracles. At the Amphyctionic councils the deputies of a dozen people met together and discussed common interests; and in order to consult the chief oracle, which was at Delphi, people flocked from all parts of the Greek world. The importance of their games may be judged by from the fact that their first existing historical record is connected with the Olympic games. In B.C. 778 the name Coroebus was inscribed on the public register of the Elians as having won the prize of the Stadium, and it became customary to take this date as the starting point of history. [quoted in McKillop, 198-99]
And one from Wells's Outline:
Yet there was always a certain tradition of unity between all the Greeks, based on a common language and script, on the common possession of the heroic epics, and on the continuous intercourse that the maritime position of the states made possible. And, in addition, there were certain religious bonds of a unifying kind. Certain shrines, the shrines of the god Apollo in the island of Delos and at Delphi, for example, were sustained not by single states, but by leagues of states or Amphictyonies (= League of neighbours), which in such instances as the Delphic amphictyony became very wide-reaching unions. The league protected the shrine and the safety of pilgrims, kept up the roads leading thereunto, secured peace at the time of special festivals, upheld certain rules to mitigate the usages of war among its members, and—the Delian league especially—suppressed piracy. A still more important link of Hellenic union was the Olympian games that were held every four years at Olympia. Foot races, boxing, wrestling, javelin throwing, quoit throwing, jumping, and chariot and horse racing were the chief sports, and a record of victors and distinguished visitors was kept. From the year 776 B.C. onward these games were held regularly for over a thousand years, and they did much to maintain that sense of a common Greek life (pan-Hellenic) transcending the narrow politics of the city states. [Wells, Outline of History 1:313-14]
I honestly don't see how this second passage is supposed to be copied from that first. There are so many substantive differences, from the phrasing and spelling (‘Amphictyonies’ and ‘amphictyony’ instead of ‘Amphyctionic’) to the level of detail and the number of elements covered; where the similarities are entirely what one would expect from two historians covering the same period. But Deeks thought Wells was plagiarising her and McKillop thinks she was right:


I for one don't see any ‘strong’ parallel between the two passages at all, and talk of structural identity between them is demonstrably false. Indeed, I'd suggest that specific verbal echoes make it much more likely that Wells is drawing not from Deeks's blandly phrased MS but the more detailed account in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which we know Wells had in his library: so Wells's phrasing and peculiar spelling ‘Delphic amphictyony’ appears twice in the 1895 Britannica's entry on ‘AMPHICTYONY’; which entry stresses the importance of Delphi and talks about how religion and games promoted the unity of the otherwise disparate Greek poleis.

The other main claim of the lawsuit was that the two histories perpetrated the same mistakes. For instance: Deeks claimed that when Columbus discovered America he mistakenly thought he had reached India; and Wells makes the same claim. McKillop thinks this damning: ‘Florence [Deeks] later learned that not even Columbus had believed this. Yet the mistakes remained common to both works’ [162]. If these two histories were the only two to make this mistake it might be suspicious, but in fact this piece of false history appears very widely in prior popular accounts (‘To the last Columbus believed that it was the Indies he had found’ [George Smith, The Conversion of India: From Pantaenus to the Present Time, A.D. 193-1893 (London 1893), 43]; ‘Columbus, supposing that he had discovered the coast of India, called the people Indians,—a name which has since been very inappropriately applied to all the aboriginal inhabitants of the Western Continent’ [Israel Smith Clare, The Centennial Universal History: A Clear and Concise History of All Nations (1876), 193] and many other instances.)

One more datum, which McKillip considers especially incriminating, is that Wells appears to take details from the French historian Victor Duruy, whose book Deeks drew on for her MS but a writer of whom Wells, in court, claimed not to have heard (although what he actually said, when asked if he'd read Duruy's History was ‘I do not know. I do not remember’). Since Duruy took his details from other historians, some of whom Wells also consulted, this in itself would prove nothing. But Deeks sought to show that Wells had copied an error she had made in transcribing from Duruy: ‘she had taken a sentence from Duruy stating that de Gama sailed from Lisbon and landed in India in 1498. But in her attempt to paraphrase she had taken the date and placed it at the beginning of her own sentence—which then lent the erroneous impression that de Gama had set sail in 1498’ [276]. Deeks believed that Wells had copied her error straight into his own text.

But this turns out, simply, to have no foundation at all. For one thing, Deeks calls the navigator ‘de Gama’ and Wells calls him ‘da Gama’. For another the actual sentence in Wells's Outline is: ‘In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon to Zanzibar, and thence, with an Arab pilot, he struck across the Indian Ocean to Calicut in India.’ McKillip, insists: ‘Wells had initially made the same mistake [as Deeks] in the date’ but ‘he had managed to find and correct the error in the text of the published version of the Outline.’ There's a smoking gun, though, he thinks: ‘he had neglected to correct the dates provided in his footnotes’ [276].

This really is desperately thin stuff. So: there's no evidence Wells ever wrote the wrong date in the Outline. 1498 is mentioned in none of his footnotes. I think what Deeks and McKillip mean is that 1498 appears in the chronology at the end of the volume, thus: ‘1498. Vasco da Gama sailed round the Cape to India’. But this doesn't say he set sail in 1498, it says he rounded the Cape in that year, which is (a) true and (b) a detail found in many other histories: (‘The discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by Bartholemew Diaz, and its subsequent passage by Vasco de Gama in 1498 formed one of the grand eras in modern navigation’ [Hugh Murray, Historical Account of Discoveries and Travels in Africa (1871) 312]; ‘In 1498, Vasco De Gama doubled the Cape ...’ [Alexander Duff, India and India Missions (1840), 34] and so on).

I appreciate this is all monstrously pettifogging stuff, but my point, in going into such detail here, is that pretty much all Deeks's claims crumble, when you look into them. I don't doubt she sincerely believed that she had been wronged, and clearly a series of lawyers and ‘experts’, all of whom made money out of doing so, encouraged her in her belief. But I really don't think her beliefs had any basis in truth. I'm not saying Wells was a moral exemplar, or incapable of plagiary: indeed, on the contrary, he made no secret of the fact that the Outline of History was a synthetic work, summarising and arranging the work of a great many other historians and writers. But he took care to attribute his sources, when he took material from collaborators he tended to pay, often very generously: David Smith notes that Johnston, Lankester, Barker and Murray received a fee of 100 guineas ‘which came as a great surprise to them, according to their letters; two of the men reported that it was the largest fee each had ever received for professional activity’ [Smith, H G Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 252]. He had no need of Weeks's work and almost certainly never saw it.

Having gone into all this in, as you can see, rather wearying detail I come out the other side with the belief that Wells did not plagiarise Florence Deeks's unpublished MS, and rather surprised that A B McKillop thinks he did.

1 comment:

  1. This rather hostile amazon reviewer adds another example of the kind of thing I'm talking about in my post.

    "One of the points seized upon is the spelling of what's now rendered 'Hatshepsut' as 'Hatasu'. One of Deeks's three 'experts' - in fact none was eminent - seized on this point. Hatasu." McKillop says: '... Irwin had worked in the field [ancient Near East] and had never seen or heard of it until he started the current investigation'. Both Wells and Deeks used this spelling; therefore Wells must be a plagiarist.

    The truth is the spelling was widespread; even on Internet I easily found 20 examples. Here are some: (1) 1881 `The Career of Queen Hatshepsut (Hatasu)' - English Translations of the Assyrian and Egyptian Monuments/ (2) 1883 FLINDERS PETRIE (one of the most famous Egyptologists) in 'The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh' has details on monuments of Hatasu/ (3) 1886: ANCIENT EGYPT by GEORGE RAWLINSON, M.A. 10th edn has an entire chapter on Hatasu/ (4) 1891 Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers. by Amelia Edwards. `QUEEN HATASU has been happily described as the Queen Elizabeth of Egyptian history/ (5) 1904 `The Web of Indian Life' by Margaret Noble mentions Hatasu/ (6) 1905 `To-day on the Nile' Guidebook by Harry Westbrook Dunning./ (7) 1906 Prize winning sculptured panel: Queen Hatasu of Egypt by the English sculptor Countess Feodora Gleichen."

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