Arts & Letters Daily
Copyright & Credits
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Volume 11, No. 4May/June 2001
IN 1925, AN UNKNOWN CANADIAN writer named Florence Amelia Deeks sued the then-world-famous British writer H.G. Wells for "literary piracy." Seeking $500,000 in damages, she accused Wells of pilfering from her unpublished manuscript "The Web of the World's Romance" when he wrote his enormously successful 1920 book, The Outline of History. Five years later, the case went to trial in Toronto, and despite three expert witnesses who supported Deeks's suit, it was dismissed. Her subsequent and costly appeals to the Ontario Supreme Court and the Privy Council in Whitehall, London, proved fruitlessas did the letter she wrote to King George V.
The incident earns a few dismissive pages, at most, in biographies of Wells. "She is just a misfortune that has come upon me," Wells remarked in 1933, "a sort of Act of God without the slightest negligence or fault of any kind on my part." But perhaps Wells protested too much? According to the Carleton University historian A.B. McKillopwhose book on the controversy, The Spinster and the Prophet, was published in Canada last fall by Macfarlane Walter & Ross and has recently appeared in the United KingdomDeeks had a stronger case than the official record suggests.
"The Web of the World's Romance" was Deeks's history of the world from the creation of the earth until World War I. It was also a feminist work. ("Woman was 'architect and builder' of the first home," she contended. "Woman, not man, was the progenitor of communal life.") As McKillop explains, Deeks trawled through "scholarly and general works of history, daring them to mention women and teasing [out]...anything at all that spoke to woman's place in history." In July 1918, she submitted "The Web of the World's Romance" for publication to Macmillan Canada. After eight months, the book was rejected. When Macmillan returned the manuscript, Deeks was puzzled to find that it had been, as she wrote later, "soiled, thumbed, worn and torn, with over a dozen pages turned down at the corners." But she didn't think much of it until she read a review of The Outline of History.
Wells had started writing The Outline of History, which also told the story of the earth from its creation onward, about four months after Deeks had sent her manuscript to Macmillan Canada. He finished the first edition about a year later, in December 1919. "It was the first time that a history of the world had been written from a full-scale internationalist point of view," explains Wells biographer and former British Labour Party leader Michael Foot. "He was arguing that racism and nationalism had led to the First World War and must be stopped." The project was a characteristically Wellsian idea and a natural extension of his advocacy throughout World War I for a League of Nations. The Outline of Historylittle read todayquickly sold two million copies in English, joining Shakespeare and the Bible on middle-class bookshelves.
In The Spinster and the Prophet, McKillop makes the circumstantial case against Wells persuasively. Having weighed the historical and textual evidence, he concedes that Wells never copied outrightThe Outline of History is true to Wells's distinctive voice throughout. But McKillop does find whole paragraphs in which Wells and Deeks list events in the same order. Furthermore, Wells makes factual errors that are consistent with those made by Deeks. Wells and Deeks also make parallel omissions: Adam Smith, for example, appears in neither text. In one particularly striking case, Wells seems to use an unattributed quotation from a work also quoted without attribution by Deeks. (Confronted on this point, Wells admitted he had not made use of the book in which the words originally appeared.)
Addressing a key piece of the puzzle, McKillop offers a speculative account of how Deeks's manuscript might have found its way into Wells's hands. At the time of the controversy, Deeks charged that Wells had received her manuscript from Macmillan, Wells's regular London publisher. McKillop has found documentsnot entered as evidence at the trialsuggesting that Macmillan Canada's management was not entirely trustworthy: The company's director was running lucrative scams out of the Macmillan offices, and a plagiarism suit involving Deeks's editor had recently been settled out of court. McKillop notes that Wells's lifelong friend Richard Gregory served as an education adviser to Macmillan U.K. and thus could have had access to Deeks's manuscript.
McKillop also finds The Outline of History to be suspiciously vehement in its dismissal of women's contribution to history. "In the few instances where he talks about woman's status, place, or physical makeup," McKillop says, "he seems to be making a commentary on what Deeks has said and rebutting it. These instances have no bearing on the rest of his argument."
Finally, there is a simple logistical argument: McKillop finds it hard to believe that a non-historianeven a prolific and famously well-read one like Wellscould have written a 1,324-page history text in just over a year, while simultaneously seeing his novel Joan and Peter through to publication, writing thirty thousand words of The Undying Fire, and producing various political pamphlets.
McKillop is not the first scholar to level piracy charges against Wells. (He notes that Ingvald Raknem, in H.G. Wells and His Critics, claims that Wells took "words, phrases, and general outlines...[from] writers as diverse as Kipling, Sterne, Swift, de Maupassant, Poe, Flammarion and Gourmont.") But to some, the suggestion that Wells owed any of The Outline of History to Deeks is nonsense. After all, the book is a work of history, events occur in a preestablished order, and Wells had been discussing The Outline of History's basic argument for years. "I think it's all rubbish. Absolute rubbish," says Michael Foot. He has an ally in David C. Smith, author and editor of numerous books on Wells, including the exhaustive H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. Smith believes McKillop has uncovered some interesting new evidence, "but if Wells did plagiarizeand I don't think he didhow did that material get from Toronto to London?"
Others find McKillop's discoveries perfectly plausible. "There's no doubt about Wells's genius," says Michael Coren, author of The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (1993), which addresses Wells's misogyny and anti-Semitism. "But in terms of Wells's character, it's abundantly possible. Wells was an appalling man. He was a spoiled brat. He lacked grace. And he was certainly not honorable."
Had Deeks prevailed in 1930, McKillop believes, the case would have been one of the most notorious literary scandals of the twentieth century. Might Deeks have done better in today's more litigious and less antifeminist climate? In 1928, after all, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that women did not legally exist as "persons," and Wells's lawyers effectively discredited Deeks as a spinster with too much time on her hands. But the British attorney Anthony Julius, an authority on matters of literary copyright, thinks Deeks would face an uphill battle even today. "The law hasn't significantly changed in terms of copyright infringement," he says. "So, I don't suppose that the issues to be decided would be any different now than they were in 1928 or 1930."
Sadly, McKillop's book may be the closest Deeks herself will ever get to print. She watched powerlessly as the perfect moment for "The Web of the World's Romance" slipped away. "It's pure speculation," says McKillop, "but it's possible her book, with a good editor, might have been published, and we might not have the kind of recession of feminism, or at least consciousness of feminism, that seems to have taken place in the 1920s and 1930s. What if, in 1922, her book had been published? Who knows what effect it could have had on the writing of women's history or on feminism itself? It can only have done that cause good and not harm."
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