A flawed tale

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST


The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester; HarperCollins, 1999; pages 242, $7.99 (paperback).

SMALL of dimension, its text presented in a font size akin to that of the dictionary of its title, this book arrives with an impressive cargo of literary plaudits. It is, the front cover announces, the "phenomenal New York Times bestseller", judge d by no less than William Safire to be "superb... the literary detective story of the decade."

Flicking the book over, we discover on the back cover further encomiums from the review pages of major American broadsheets ("an elegant book... a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humour"; "a fascinating, spicy, learned tale"; "marvellous"). Openin g the book, we confront a page of similarly fulsome approbation. We are, the reviewers tell us, about to enter an "oddball slice of history" stalked by "madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of high neo-Gothic."

Few readers could resist such an invitation, even if the commercial purposes behind the publishers' spin are obvious (selective quotation from reviews is a long-established marketing strategy.) But to enter this book is to find the reviewers' hyperbole b elied by the contents. What is intriguing about Simon Winchester's book is not so much its "oddball" theme as the type of response it has elicited from those supposedly in possession of critical acuity. For, what we have here is a tale flawed by overwrit ing, imprecision, dizzy flights of speculation, prose episodes of the deepest purple, and the relentless reduction of human motivation and the world of the mind to something approaching psychobabble. The results are all the more disappointing because of the intrinsic fascination of the story Winchester has to tell.

THE bones of the story are as follows. In the late 1870s, Dr. James Murray, newly appointed editor of the project to produce the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a gargantuan scholarly undertaking that would not be completed until 1928, recruited the ser vices of Dr. William C. Minor, a retired United States Army surgeon living in rural Surrey. Minor was one of a legion of volunteer readers whose input into the compilation of the dictionary was to prove vital to its comprehensiveness and definitive char acter. But Minor quickly placed himself beyond the ordinary run of readers, sending to Oxford an accelerating flow of research slips that, on the basis of a unique methodology, kept wonderfully in step with the work in progress and seemed to anticipate w hat was required at any particular stage.

Intrigued by this gifted, prodigiously precise and productive contributor, Murray subsequently discovered Minor to be an inmate at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, incarcerated for life as a convicted murderer. The two men met within the c onfines of the institution and there developed a friendship which continued until Murray's death in 1915. Murray seems to have played a role in the decision, by the Home Secretary of the day, Winston Churchill, in 1910, to release Minor from Broadmoor an d repatriate him to the U.S., where he died ten years later.

THE story, then, is about - or might be assumed to be about - an improbable, enduring literary friendship forged by pioneers tackling the slopes of a lexicographical Everest. To flesh out such a story, a researcher would need access to primary sources. W inchester indicates the existence of "official government files" locked away for more than a century but which he has been allowed to "see." He also refers obliquely to the survival of some of the correspondence between Murray and Minor. But rather than let his two protagonists, to the extent possible, tell their own story, he elbows them aside in favour of a very different kind of narrative undertaking.

A murder, grisly, full-bodied and random, always draws in the punters, and Winchester is not about to throw away the opportunity. The story, as he tells it, opens in the Lambeth marshes, in a miasma of scene-setting murk, disease and depravity. After pag es of elaborate description establishing Lambeth as the apogee of vice in a Victorian London rather more authentically depicted by Dickens, the journalist lays out his murder (Dr. Minor is, of course, the perpetrator) in bloodcurdling detail.

This choice of starting point is crucial. For Winchester's book is less a reconstruction of an unusual literary collaboration and friendship than it is a "whydunnit." For all the worthy information the author provides on Murray, the dictionary project an d the intellectual-political context in which it inched towards fruition, one senses all the time that his real interests lie elsewhere. Why did Minor, the quiet, studious (but simultaneously licentious and debauched) surgeon, turn killer? Were his passi ons inflamed by glimpses of buxom, beach-wandering "native" girls during his Ceylon childhood? Was it something to do with his experiences as an Army surgeon serving in the American Civil War? Why (if not for the purposes of therapy) did Minor, the certi fied and incarcerated madman, then choose to immerse himself in arcane lexicographical pursuits? And why was it, towards the end of his Broadmoor years, that Minor saw fit to inflict on himself a spectacular act of self-mutilation?

These are puzzles which even a modern-day specialist in mental health would hesitate to pronounce upon. Winchester the journalist nurses no such inhibitions. "Guilt - perhaps a frequent handmaiden among the peculiarly pious - seems to have intervened, ev en more than a teenager's shyness or natural caution," he asserts on page 49. "From this moment on in William Minor's long and tormented life, sex and guilt come to appear firmly and fatally riveted together." There is more, much more, in the same banal vein.

It is not only the author's inept encounters with psychiatry that test the reader's endurance. For a book ostensibly about the making of a dictionary, with all that such a project implies about linguistic accuracy, precision, attention to detail and meas ured, careful prose, Winchester's offering is singularly cavalier. The two adjectives that spring to mind are overwritten and breathless. Never one to pass over a redundant adverb, the author regales us with the "dauntingly highbrow", the "irritatingly p edantic" and the "preternaturally anxious." He is lavish with cliches: "in fine fettle" is followed by "a stone's throw", while on page 93 we are told, inventively, that the new dictionary "would sell like hot cakes." There are linguistic infelicities th at will stop discerning readers in their tracks: the "seamless syrup of insanity" invoked on page 158 is a case in point. Patience is also stretched by the author's repeated resort to the literary cliffhanger: thus, "the truth about his new American corr espondent was a great deal stranger than this detached, innocent and other-worldly Scotsman [Murray] could have ever imagined."

IN combination, Winchester's overblown style and boundless appetite for speculation can prove awesome. On page 133, the author enters the mind of the incarcerated Dr. Minor, now getting into his lexicographical stride, and offers this picture of what he finds there: "After a decade of languishing in the dark slough of imprisonment, intellectual isolation, and remove, Minor felt that at last he was being hoisted back up onto the sunlit uplands of scholarship." The problem with this type of writing is not simply its power to grate on readers' nerves. It also detracts from the story, so rich in human and intellectual interest. Nor are matters helped by the heavy infusions of research Winchester introduces into his text in a quest for weightiness and histo rical authenticity. His discussion of the OED project, for example, is preceded by a review of the history of British lexicography that is replete with repetition and padding. There is much of interest in this account, but the reader must labour to ident ify the nuggets relevant to the story.

Early in the book, Winchester lays out the guiding principle of the OED undertaking - a principle that has elevated it far beyond the modest, utilitarian concerns of the run-of-the-mill dictionary. As the author explains, the massive, multi-volume OED is based on "gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language." Through this method, the project sought to achieve comprehensiveness and precisi on and also to capture the evolving character and usage of words in their march through history. The method, as Winchester points out, was singularly labour intensive, requiring inputs from an army of researchers equipped with literary knowledge and the willingness - and aptitude - for the immensely detailed, painstaking and precise work required of them. That in a number of cases these unpaid contributors were eccentric individuals with obsessive predilections seems entirely plausible.

That Dr. Minor the "madman" proved one of the doughtiest of these unsung heroes is a moving story of such intrinsic drama that it could almost tell itself. In the hands of a more sensitive writer than Winchester, it might have stood a chance of doing so.

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