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