“The Spinster and the Prophet” by A.B. McKillop

In the 1920s, judges ridiculed a Canadian woman who said H.G. Wells plagiarized her book, but a modern scholar finds her case convincing.

Topics: Books,

When H.G. Wells, world-renowned author, was charged by an unknown Canadian spinster with plagiarizing a book that purported to cover all that had happened to mankind since the beginning of time, he didn’t take her claims especially seriously. He preferred, on the contrary, to poke fun at the 60-year-old woman for “conceiv[ing] the strange idea that she held the copyright to human history.”

If, on the surface, his dilemma bears a resemblance to that of rogue historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in another respect the court case against him seems strongly to anticipate such tussles as the lawsuit, recently dismissed, against J.K. Rowling disputing her claim to have created Harry Potter. All of which is to say that the litigation that challenged Wells’ reputation some eight decades ago vividly evokes, and may even explain, the reasons for our confusion about plagiarism to this day.

The incident was almost forgotten — another episode in Wells’ overloaded biography — until a Carleton University professor named A.B. McKillop expertly resurrected it in his absorbing account, “The Spinster and the Prophet,” a new book that, whether by design or accidentally, couldn’t be more timely. The motivations of Wells and his nemesis, Miss Florence Deeks of Toronto, as well as the behavior of any number of publishers and lawyers, are pieced together in McKillop’s deeply researched story. Is Wells guilty? We must first consider what we mean by the question. And we can do that only by examining the contested facts.

The book that Florence Deeks claimed was based on her own was titled “The Outline of History,” and its true origin will forever remain a mystery. It was mired in controversy from the moment it was published in 1920. One respected critic called it “a great book — one of the greatest of all time!” while a prominent scholar held it to be “commonplace in the extreme.” It shortly became a bestseller and made Wells a fortune, in England and America alone earning him 25 percent royalties on more than 2 million copies over its first few years in print.

The book displayed all the virtues and vices of the man whose name graced its covers. Necessarily general, it provided an overview of the universe from the formation of the solar system through World War I, serving as a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the past 4.5 billion years, as well as an argument for a future world democracy in which there’d be neither poverty nor war.

For the perspective it provided, “Outline” was an extraordinary accomplishment, yet what it left out was more than a little significant. Tamerlane never made the cut, nor did — ever the good socialist, Wells — Adam Smith. Much of India’s history was omitted, as well as that of Japan, and the United States vanished from his summary for the 50 years between the War of Independence and the birth of the Monroe Doctrine. The deepest flaw of all, though, was surely the omission of almost any mention of women.

If the discrepancy between lofty aims and shoddy execution was typically Wellsian, the sexism of his world history even more strongly reflected his personality. His affairs, too countless to mention, are notable chiefly for their similarity, or, rather, for his inability to differentiate between women: His interest was in novelty, and while he bedded some of the best minds of his day — from Margaret Sanger to Rebecca West — his fiction demonstrated even less knowledge of them than it did self-awareness. A man blind to the accomplishments of the women with whom he’s intimate isn’t likely to appreciate the significance of Queen Elizabeth or Joan of Arc or Hatshepsut, either.

Hatshepsut, a great Egyptian pharaoh, was in fact included in Wells’ history, although under the odd spelling “Hatasu.” As it happens, Florence Deeks too included “Hatasu” in the overview of world history she completed several years before Wells published his “Outline.” That the female pharaoh was included was to be expected: Deeks wrote her book, “The Web of the World’s Romance” to lend importance to women’s role in the past, and to suggest that peace and prosperity were characteristic of female leadership.

Deeks was neither a professional scholar nor a published author. Inspired by feminist activists traveling through Canada at the start of the century, she’d simply seen it as common sense to seat herself in the reading room of the Toronto public library, and not to leave until she’d rewritten world history.

She worked straight through the Great War, wearing her overcoat when there was no power, going home each night to her widowed mother, her two sisters and her typewriter. “The Web” gerrymandered together facts from a number of popular histories and encyclopediae — beginning with the formation of the solar system and continuing on through the war — but leaned rather heavily on John Richard Green’s “Short History of the English People.” In fact, she’d borrowed from Green freely enough that it became a worry. Unsure whether her dependence amounted to outright plagiarism, she decided to bring the manuscript for vetting by Green’s publisher, the venerable Macmillan & Co.

With offices in New York and London as well as in Canada, Macmillan was the chosen house of writers from Rudyard Kipling to Lewis Carroll to Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Naturally, it also published the acclaimed author of “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds,” Herbert George Wells. At around the time John Saul, an editor in the educational books division of Macmillan Canada, promised to give Deeks’ manuscript a read, Wells wrote a letter to Macmillan New York publisher George Brett proposing a history of mankind “of about two hundred thousand words, and about one thousand maps, illustrations, full page or smaller. What do you think of the project?” he asked.

Brett not unreasonably responded that Wells has told him “nothing of the way in which you intend to write the book,” pointing out that “it might be prepared from the standpoint of Social History of Mankind … Material History of Mankind, or the purely natural development of Mankind from its physical standpoint.” Wells seems not to have thought his idea through even to that extent, for his next letter was to Sir Frederick Macmillan in London, again proposing his “Universal History,” this time adding only the less-than-helpful detail that it might be used in schools as “a prize book & for reading.”

Starting with that vague notion, Wells appears to have produced — without any preparation or training in history, while simultaneously writing a novel and carrying on an affair — a two-volume book of 1,324 pages in about a year. To McKillop, a professional historian, this proposition “beggars the imagination. In mid-November 1918, nothing on the project had advanced as far as the typescript stage. By February 5, 1919, [Wells' wife] Jane had produced 50,000 to 60,000 words in typed form. Twenty days later, her husband had reached the 125,000-word mark — halfway through the projected book. He had written between 75,000 and 80,000 words in under three weeks, researching along the way … At the end of the year, the whole manuscript was complete. The achievement was nothing short of miraculous.”

Several scholars at the time agreed, and even said so under oath when Deeks pressed suit in 1927. She’d taken a while to bring Wells to court: Her manuscript had spent a full year at Macmillan, during which Saul had put off the old spinster, promising to examine the text as soon as he had a spare moment. That moment had never come, at least not until Saul was gone. His successor had simply sent her a short (and unsolicited) rejection letter.

Then, about a year later, Deeks happened upon a review in Saturday Night magazine that praised H.G. Wells’ latest, his “Outline of History.” The critic, Hector Charlesworth of Toronto, wrote that, “Such a synthesis, such an interpretation of life as a cognate whole has never been attempted single-handed by any other man.” While that was hardly a claim that Deeks could deny, her curiosity turned to concern as she bought Wells’ tome at the local department store, and began to compare it to her own.

When her manuscript had been returned, she’d wondered why it was so tattered and dog-eared, as if it had been read and referred to repeatedly. “The Outline of History” gave her an explanation: The books had in common not only facts and phrasings, but many of the same omissions. She, too, had called Hatshepsut “Hatasu,” a spelling not used by anybody since the 1890s, copied by her from one of the out-of-date books in the Toronto Public Library. From both histories, Adam Smith was missing, and much of India. Wells held, as did Deeks, that the Phoenicians traded by land rather than sea, and both called Roman general Sulla “aristocratic,” when in fact he was — a subtle but crucial linguistic distinction — strictly patrician.

While some of these similarities were discovered by Deeks, most were found by academics she hired to help her. By the time she took Wells to court, the list of such parallels ran to many pages, and scholars were even more shocked by the inaccuracy of Wells’ facts than by how quickly he’d allegedly written his manuscript. After all, he’d credited an array of experts, four mentioned on his cover page and about 100 more in his acknowledgments, for helping him work so fast. Naturally, given his connections, all were leaders in their disciplines. How, then, could they have led Wells so far afield?

Deeks’ chief expert witness, University of Toronto professor William Irwin, held that the names were but a bluff. “The work has no merits that would preclude it being dependent upon an unknown writer,” he told the court. “Indeed on the contrary, the striking deficiencies and inaccuracies of Mr. Wells’ treatment, taken in connection with his imposing array of scholarly collaborators implies rather cogently that there is something deeply wrong.” McKillop’s failure to find substantive exchanges about “The Outline of History” in Wells’ correspondence with any of his alleged advisors, many of them already elderly, supports Irwin’s claim; the author’s letters seem primarily concerned with convincing Sir E. Ray Lankester et al. to lend him their esteemed names.

In at least that respect, Wells knew exactly what he was doing. Impregnable behind his reputation, he used his brief time in court to make light of the case: Asked where he found certain passages, he cited Herodotus, who, as far as he was aware, “knew nothing of Miss Deeks.” Following Wells’ lead, the Canadian court seems not to have taken the spinster’s case especially seriously. The newspapers made headlines of her demand for $500,000 in damages, but the judge mostly preferred to adjourn for lunch.

Wells won the case. Deeks appealed. Dismissed. She boarded a boat for England, where she appeared before the British Privy Council. But Lord Atkin of Aberdovey, Lord Tomlin of Ash and Lord Thankerton proved no more sympathetic than the Canadians. That left only the King of England — by common law “every British Subject has a right to appeal to the mercy seat of the throne” — so she sent off a petition to George V. The case, which by then had cost her approximately $750,000 in today’s dollars, was summarily judged “frivolous.”

That “The Web” had been a book about the power of women through history is only the easiest of many ironies. Assuredly more difficult for Deeks to take was the publishing industry’s response to her revision of “The Web,” to which she turned when her lawsuit could go no further. “Your book would be subject to comparison with Wells’ ‘Outline of History,’” wrote an editor at Little, Brown, perceptively. “For that reason, I think you will have difficulty in securing a publisher at the present time.” Nevertheless, to feel sympathy for Deeks does not require that we disagree with Wells when he writes, in one of his books, that “Fools make researches and wise men exploit them.”

Strictly as a matter of copyright, Wells may have done wrong; the selection and organization of information is protected as intellectual property. His claim never to have seen the Deeks manuscript, at any rate, seems highly unlikely. (Not only is there an overwhelming amount of textual evidence, but also, as important, McKillop finds a path through Macmillan that convincingly explains how Wells was secretly lent “The Web” when he needed it most desperately.) The more pressing question, though, isn’t who owed how much money to whom — they’re all dead anyway — but rather how we’re to treat a famous author’s reputation. And that brings us back to plagiarism.

H.G. Wells may have been a liar and a thief, but that is the extent of his guilt. However reprehensible we may find his opinion of women, he set out to do something fundamentally different with the material at hand than was done by Florence Deeks. He didn’t plagiarize her any more than she did John Richard Green, or, for that matter, than any writer who uses words in the correct grammatical order plagiarizes H.W. Fowler.

What is admirable about “The Web” is the argument it makes, deeply original for its time, that civilization (as opposed to barbarity) is feminine. Green wasn’t saying that, nor were any of the other histories or encyclopediae of the time. Likewise, the greatness to be found in “The Outline of History” exists in its trajectory, the way in which it sets the progress of society as a function of democracy. Wells has often been called prophetic, and that is the virtue of his book: The failure of the League of Nations — the rejection of his notion of progress — led to another century of butchery.

Plagiarism isn’t a legal term. For that we have “copyright.” On the contrary, it is a condemnation to infamy. To be called a plagiarist is in effect to be burned in effigy. Wells does not deserve that epithet. Our disdain for him personally is quite beside the point; our assessment of his legacy must be a function of his ideas, and their expression, in his books. Ultimately, plagiarism is a matter of originality, not origination. (We wouldn’t think less of Picasso’s art if we learned he’d stolen his paints.) For all its flaws and ill-gotten gains, “The Outline of History” is an astounding work of creativity.

So it goes with Doris Kearns Goodwin. As a matter of plagiarism, once we strike questions of copyright, her case isn’t any different from that of J.K. Rowling, who’s been repeatedly accused by author Nancy Stouffer of stealing the term ‘muggle.’ Stouffer’s muggles, who appeared in some booklets printed in the ’80s, were “tiny hairless creatures with elongated heads who live in a fictional post-apocalyptic land called Aura.” In Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, ‘muggle’ is, quite the contrary, what wizards call ordinary people. Charming as the word may be, Rowling’s real creativity is to be found in the world in which said creatures live. The world of the imagination. A place unknown to Stouffer. (Or perhaps not entirely so; the judge who dismissed her suit against Rowling and enjoined her from making further claims that Harry Potter infringes on her copyright also ruled that Stouffer had forged and altered evidence she presented in the case and “failed to correct her fraudulent submissions even when confronted with evidence undermining the validity of those submissions.” Stouffer has filed a motion for reconsideration.)

And what of Goodwin? Surely our respect for her as an historian isn’t a question of her access to a good library. So she copied a few phrases. So she broke a few rules. A reputation should be taken away only on the same grounds as it was given: Cheated ideas. A stolen story.

A book that moves us, whether fiction or history, is a great rarity. We ought not be so foolish, so frivolous, as to dismiss it, and toss its author away, on a technicality.

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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