The Spinster and the Prophet: Florence Deeks, H.G. Wells, and the Mystery of the Purloined Past

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McClelland & Stewart, Nov 30, 2011 - Biography & Autobiography - 496 pages
Winner of the UBC Medal for Biography and shortlisted for the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.

The prolific novelist and social prophet H.G. Wells had a way with words, and usually he had his way with women. That is, until he encountered the feisty Toronto spinster Florence Deeks. In 1925 Miss Deeks launched a $500,000 lawsuit against Wells, claiming that in an act of "literary piracy," Wells had somehow come to use her manuscript history of the world in the writing of his international bestseller The Outline of History , a work still in print today. Thus began one of the most sensational and extraordinary cases in Anglo-Canadian publishing and legal history.

In this riveting literary whodunit, A.B. McKillop unfolds the parallel stories of two Edwardian figures and the ambition to capture the sweep of history that possessed them both: H.G. Wells was the celebrated writer of autobiographical fiction and futuristic fantasy who, at the end of the Great War, preached the need for a global world order. Florence Deeks was a modest teacher and amateur student of history who intended to correct traditional scholarship's neglect by writing an account of civilization that stressed the contributions of women. Her manuscript was submitted to the venerable Macmillan Company in Canada but was rejected and never published. Wells's opus, completed in an astonishingly short period, was released by the same firm in North America the year following.

As the mystery deepens and new evidence is revealed, it seems that the verdict of the courts in Deeks vs Wells may not be that of history. The cast of characters is as intriguing as it is wide in Canada, the United States, and England: renowned publishers and editors, eminent lawyers and judges, leading journalists and all-seeing office secretaries. Not all, it turns out, merited their reputations.

Above all, the tale embraces the lives of the philandering Mr. Wells, his wife, and his mistresses, and the scarcely noted Miss Florence Deeks, her family, her life's work, and her search for justice.

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User Review  - rivkat -

Florence Deeks spent years writing a history of the world focused on women’s role. H.G. Wells spent a couple of months writing a history of the world; when he wrote about women, it was disparagingly ... Read full review

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User Review  - eenerd - LibraryThing

Interesting story, but McKillop is somewhat long-winded, and seems to make a great many inferences. Assumes a lot about Wells, Wells' wife and Florence Deeks. Read full review


1          Lace Curtains
2          Formations
3          Labour and Constancy
4          The Great Reserve
5          Loves and Wars
6          History and Humanity
7          Shadows
12        Delays and Discoveries
13        Enter King David and So On
14        Ripostes
15        Justice
16        Lancaster Gate
17        Voices

8          Outlines
9          Devils in Details
10        Accusations
11        Investigations

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About the author (2011)

Professor of history at Carleton University, A.B. McKillop is one of Canada's leading historians of ideas. He is the award-winning author of several previously published scholarly works on the history of religion and higher education. His writings and speeches encompass not only studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy, religion, education, and science but also the historical context of the composer Stephen Sondheim's musicals. He lives in Ottawa.

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