McKillop, A.B.: The Spinster and the Prophet

McKillop, A. B.
The Spinster and the Prophet
Mcfarlane, Walter & Ross, 2000
Hardcover, 477 pages

First published in: The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 2001
Review by: Kerry Riley

It was, until recently, a little known or mostly forgotten bit of literary history – the fact that a completely unknown amateur historian named Florence Deeks, from Toronto no less, once challenged the mighty H. G. Wells over the authorship of his international best-seller, The Outline of History, accusing him of plagiarism and “literary piracy.” He had, she claimed, stolen significantly from the ideas, structure and words of her own work, The Web, a feminist history of the world, into which she had poured three and a half years of meticulous labour.

Miss Deeks, the middle-aged “spinster” of The Spinster and the Prophet, had nothing if not the strength of her convictions, and although her claim was generally considered ludicrous (by a lot of people who knew nothing about it) she launched a court case against Wells in 1925. She continued the struggle until 1933, when she finally admitted defeat, on legal, if not moral grounds.

According to family lore, she poured over $100,000 of family money (about $750,000 in today’s terms, according to the author’s estimates) into her quest for justice, largely financed by her brother George, a successful Edwardian businessman . Miss Deeks, as the reader quickly comes to realize, was a very determined woman.

Well educated by the standards set for upper middle-class Edwardian women, she had studied language and history at Victoria College in Toronto for several years, and worked as an instructor in modern languages at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College. She was an intelligent, if dogged personality, very much confined by the social strictures of her time – even more, no doubt, than she herself understood, until she asked society to consider her in terms equal to those afforded Mr. Wells and was deeply disappointed.

Her interest in history had led her to a consideration of the place of women in our past, and a growing indignation about the lack of information on this topic. With encouragement and inspiration from her sisters, she set out, in 1914, to correct this imbalance by writing “a new kind of history of the world.” By 1918, she had a manuscript which eventually found its way into the hands of Macmillan’s Canadian branch, where it languished for an unseemly amount of time. Imagine her consternation, then, around Christmas of 1920, when she discovered that H.G. Wells had written a “history of mankind,” published in North American by Macmillan’s New York office, which, to Florence’s mind, bore an uncanny resemblance to her own work

Florence’s claim was widely thought to border on the lunatic – popular opinion, at the time highly influenced by Freud (never a great friend of women) facilely identifying her behavior as the neurotic histrionics of a starchy old maid, whose repressed maternal energies had found this unnatural outlet. She was, however, not without her supporters, some of whom possessed considerable expertise.

There were unsettling questions as well. Just how did Wells manage to produce his monumental, two-volume masterwork in only about eighteen months—a herculean feat of authorship that is just barely credible? Especially considering that he was engaged in other significant projects at the same time. There were connections between Macmillan’s Canadian, American, and London branches and Wells, and his book was produced during the same period that Macmillan was in possession of Florence’s manuscript. There were some alarming similarities in the manuscript too, perhaps most damning, what appeared to be identical mistakes. Certainly, Norman Tilley, at the time “Ontario’s finest litigator,” felt the Deeks case had merit, for he agreed to represent Florence against Wells. Unfortunately for the reader, and Miss Deeks, it could never be demonstrated that Florence’s manuscript came directly into Wells’ possession, and Florence ultimately lost her case.

Truth be told, it’s not clear who was right. Did the similarities arise from the use of similar sources, or did Wells, perhaps pressed for time and money, borrow indiscriminately from an unknown’s work? It is clear that Florence possessed no great talent as an historian or a writer — it’s unlikely, even if Wells did steal her ideas, that she was robbed of any significant success in either of these fields. (It should be noted, however, that the publication of The Outline of History made Wells a wealthy man.)

Much of the media buzz (as distinct from the author’s position) which surrounded McKillop’s story, indeed even its title, has tended to identify Florence’s audacity in challenging Wells as the most sensational aspect of her story. I mean really—a little, old spinster from Toronto the Good? How presumptuous! Besides adding insult to injury—an unsettling reminder that we may not have progressed as far as we think in our attitudes—it is a serious misrepresentation of Florence Deeks.

Undoubtedly naïve, and perhaps even misguided, Florence did not, at any point, warrant condescension. Smart, determined and perceptive, she made some of the best legal minds of the time sweat for their pay – and she was nothing short of magnificent in her defense of her own intrinsic value. What she demanded, based on her absolute belief, right or wrong, that Wells had plagiarized her work, was recognition that her time and effort had value, and that the ideal that individuals were equal before the law, regardless of differences in social station, be upheld. And, she did it in the face of truly withering social dismissal, based on her sex and situation.

The story, a genuine literary mystery, has now been taken up by A.B. McKillop, a much-published professor of history at Carlton University. His account provides an insightful glimpse into a not-so-distant era, its social structure, reigning conventions and patriarchal assumptions, as well as a less than complimentary picture of a womanizing, often self-aggrandizing and hypocritical Wells and his odd relationships, particularly with his second wife “Jane” Wells, and the English writer Rebecca West.

It is, however, the inimitable Miss Deeks whose story shines out above all others. Although she lost her case and died in obscure, genteel, dependent poverty, the last word, it seems, may be hers.

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