Book Review: The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Wincester

cover of "The Professor and the Madman"This is one of those nonfiction books that pops up on my radar but that I never make room to read.  finally I sat down with it and it’s such a delight.  This book got a lot of praise when it came out in 1998 and it’s so fun for me to finally get to find out why!

The Professor and the Madman is about the professional and personal relationship between Professor James Murray and Dr. William Chester Minor.  Murray was the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – the very first edition, the first to try to compile the definitions and examples from written language of every single word in the English  language.  The project was farmed out to hundreds of volunteers.  One of the most prolific was Dr. William Chester Minor.  He had plenty of time to research words for the dictionary because he was incarcerated at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic asylum.

This book is fascinating on several levels.  The concept behind the OED is much more vast than I had realized and reading about how it was complied is not unlike reading about a military campaign.  Intermixed with this is discussion of the history of dictionaries in general.  This first English language dictionaries in England offered only “the choicest words”, leading to this passage:

So words like adminiculationcautiontate, denunciate, and attemptate are placed in the vocabulary too, each duly cataloged in the tiny leather books of the day; yet they were words meant only for the loftiest ears”,

Goodness, is it warm in here?

Meanwhile, the story of Minor is bizarre, sometimes appalling, occasionally bloody, often tragic, and often quite touching.  While most of Minor’s life took place in two rooms, his earlier life involved war and murder, and while in Broadmoor he suffered from delusions of persecution that provide an abundance of drama.  The juxtaposition of what seems like a dry subject on the surface (the dictionary) with what appears to be the most lurid subject possible (insanity in the late Victorian Era and early Edwardian Era) means that the dictionary is given excitement and the madness is given depth and consideration.  Minor is treated by the author with great compassion, as indeed he seems to have been treated by Murray, with whom he exchanged hundreds of letters and several personal visits.

There’s some odd language in the book.  It reads like a much older book.  Early on the author describes Minor’s adolescence in the South Seas in unnecessarily lascivious terms.  Minor was troubled all his life by sexual fantasies and guilt, so there’s nothing odd about mentioning his adolescent discovery of sexual attrition, but the author dwells so much on the charms of the girls of the South Seas, as opposed to Minor’s reactions to them, that you have to wonder if the author has the same problems.  Elsewhere he uses the word “niggardly” to describe a stingy person.  It seems odd and distressing that the author of a book about words and their constantly changing meanings would use a word that has fallen justly out of favor.

On the whole, the book is warm as well as interesting.  It’s telling that the book is dedicated to man, George Merrett who Minor murdered.  This man was a stoker who was on his way to work when Minor shot him.  It was this murder that resulted in Minor being sent to the asylum.  Not much is known about Merrett, but the author of the book refuses to let him fade into the background.  The book is dedicated to Merrett, the first chapter describes Merrett’s life and death, and the end of the book returns to talk about him and the fate of his widow, who forgave Minor for the murder.  That insistence on humanity pervades the book and makes what could have been a dry topic deeply emotional.