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

by A.B. McKillop

In 1925 Florence Deeks, a Toronto teacher and feminist, entered into a long struggle to prove that H.G. Wells – the novelist, occasional historian, and forerunner of Faith Popcorn – had, with the help of unscrupulous editors, plagiarized the manuscript of The Web, her unpublished history of civilization, in writing his popular book The Outline of History. Despite testimony in her favour from some of the more respected academics of the time, Deeks lost her case. Judges, publishers, and supporters of Wells all dismissed her as a foolish spinster.

History would leave it at that, if it weren’t for A.B. McKillop’s determined rescue. McKillop is himself a historian at Carleton University, and at its best, The Spinster and the Prophet uses the conventions of fiction to give Deeks’s case life and urgency. Written during the First World War, The Web was Deeks’s pioneering attempt to chronicle the contribution of women to history. With scenes recalling the suffragist assemblies in James’s The Bostonians and a detailed recreation of the Toronto publishing world, McKillop traces Deeks’s awakening to the political act of writing a women’s history, and makes a convincing argument that, up against the patriarchal institutions of the day, she had little chance of being recognized for her efforts.

The flexibility of writing a dramatized, fictionalized history allows McKillop to describe characters and coincidences in a way that a more conventional history would not. However, at its lesser moments, the story lists into melodrama and sentiment, showing the author perhaps too eager to make a mystery out of history. Sections are contrived to end at suspenseful moments, and when Deeks’s manuscript is first rejected, McKillop can’t resist writing that “her only child had been stillborn.”

And while the evidence suggests that it is difficult to side with Wells in this case, McKillop is relentless in demonizing him. The constant and true Deeks is set in full contrast to the adulterous and opportunistic Wells, who, we are told from the start, was born from a loveless marriage. Are we to believe that therein lay the root of his betrayal of Deeks and the other women in his life? Surely an unfair suggestion from an otherwise conscientious historian.