Yukon Books - Whitehorse, Yukon
Yukonbooks.com > Bookends: Dan Davidson

  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Spinster and the Prophet: Florence Deeks, H.G. Wells and the Mystery of the Purloined Past

Reviewed: January 7, 2005
By: A. B. McKillop
Publisher: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross
477 pages, $24.99

In December 1920 Florence Deeks read a book review, and it changed her life. As a result of reading Hector Charlesworth's review of H.G. Wells' two volume Outline of History, Deeks went out and bought a copy of the book. She read it with a mounting sense of dismay, for in so many ways it resembled her book, The Web of the World's Romance, which she had spent much of the Great War researching and writing. More to the point, her manuscript had been in the hands of Mr. Wells' publisher for a good long period of time, about the same period of time during which Wells, best known as a novelist up to that point, was said to have been writing his book.

Perhaps even more to the point, her manuscript, which she had begun to revise after it had been rejected for publication, was returned to her in a condition which indicated that it had been much thumbed while it had been away from her. She was moved to undertake a minute comparison of the two books, side by side, and the more she looked the more similarities she found.

It did not seem to her that Wells had merely copied her text. No, the writing was different. The organization, the choice of examples, the focus on certain individuals and periods, many of the conclusions, and some of the errors she had found during her revision, these seemed to her to be similar.

Even then, she might not have been moved to sue. The last straw was when her revised manuscript was rejected by publishers as being too similar to his. Deeks launched herself into an attack which consumed much of her energy from 1925 to 1933. She petitioned every court in the land, worked her way up the judicial ladder with dogged determination and, ultimately, failed to win her case.

History may justify her in the end, however. Brian McKillop is quite convinced that she was correct, that Wells did, by some means, make use of her ideas in producing his own monumental work, and that the only reason she did not win her case was that she was a woman with most of the old boys' network of the first half of the 20th century aligned against her.

McKillop tells this tale by recounting the lives of Deeks and Wells in alternating sections. Wells does not come off well. A young man of some promise, he scored early with his scientific romances, for which he is best remembered today, and then settled into a series of rather mundane novels of manners, which seem to have been thinly disguised variations of themes and incidents from his own life and, perhaps more to the point, justifications for his sins.

Wells comes across as a philanderer who was chronically unfaithful to his wife, Catherine; a social climber who had no sense of proportion in his dealings with people; a husband who systematically reduced the scope of his wife's development as a person, even to renaming her "Jane". She was a safe harbour from which he sallied forth on raiding expeditions and returned home for security when it was time to write another book.

Deeks, by contrast, lives a rather pedestrian life in Toronto, but nevertheless develops into a woman somewhat ahead of her time in terms of feminist thinking and analysis of the world situation. She schools herself and produces a remarkable, though flawed, piece of writing.

McKillop traces the development of both books, and it seems that his decision about the truth of Deeks' case comes down to timetables. There is ample proof to show where and how Florence produced her work, and almost none to show how Wells managed his. It is known that he had nothing on paper until fairly late in the day, that he had no particular background in his chosen subject, and that the panel of experts he cited as having assisted him actually contributed nothing but proofreading to the enterprise. There are no drafts, outlines or revisions to show how he did it and McKillop doesn't buy the standard biographers' line that the man was simply brilliant and that nothing more need be said.

It is perhaps easier to accept that he would cheat in this enterprise as he cheated in so much of his life. I must say that I will not be able to look at a book by Wells in quite the same way after having read this one about him.

The Spinster and the Prophetmakes a convincing case that injustice was done to Florence Deeks. It does so in clear, compelling prose, with all the clues and arguments well assembled. It also presents vivid pictures of the lives of its protagonists. In addition, it shows how interpretations of history and assignments of reputation can simply become accepted "truth" and never be questioned. Until the publication of this book the standard presentation of Deeks as a frustrated and eccentric spinster had not been challenged for decades. If McKillop's forthcoming biography of Pierre Berton is equally compelling, we will be in for a great read when that appears in a couple of years.

McKillop was the Berton House Writer in Residence during the spring and early summer of 2004.

Print Preview


[Special Order Desk]
Great Deals
New Arrivals
Special Offers
Recover password
Contact us
Privacy statement
Terms & Conditions
Shipping Information
Special Orders Desk

Copyright © 2007 Yukonbooks.com