And time for another little dip into non-fiction! This volume is another charity shop find – I’ve been seeing out about for ages now (it came out originally in 1998) and I finally decided I fancied reading it.The fact that Will Self describes it as “a tour de force” on the front cover is neither here nor there….

Anyway – the story is subtitled “a tale or murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary” and that pretty much sums up what it is! Dr. James Murray was the Editor of the OED and came from a poor Scottish background with no training. Yet through hard work and being in the right place at the right time, he ended up spending a good chunk of his life overseeing the compilation of the definitive English dictionary. Up till that time, there had only been partial attempts at such a thing – the most prominent being Samuel Johnson’s version – and it’s hard for us to realise in these times of instant reference sources that when Shakespeare was writing there were no standardised spellings or meanings for language. In fact, this is something I came across when I read an interesting book about Marlowe called “The Reckoning” as a lot of the confusion around his death stems from the fact that in those days, people did not even spell proper names consistently – so there is no way of knowing for sure which person might be referred to in a document!

The murder and madness in the title are courtesy of Dr. William C. Minor. This American surgeon had fought in the civil war there and come out of it mentally changed. Whether his condition was caused by events in the war, or whether he would always have developed his madness, is impossible to say (as there are hints at strange tendencies during his upbringing). However Winchester makes a strong case for him being affected by the brutality and horror he witnessed. After moving around the USA, Minor came to London and whilst under the influence of delusions committed an unprovoked murder. He was sent to the newly established Broadmoor and spent most of the rest of his life there.

These two unlikely men came into contact through the OED. The compiling of the dictionary was undertaken with the help of hundreds of volunteers, checking words and meanings and citations, and Minor was an educated man. One of his comforts in Broadmoor was his books and he ended up being one of the major contributors to the work. What is amazing is the amount of time it took Murray to realise that he was dealing with someone who was classed as insane, but Broadmoor did not have the reputation then that it does now!

This was a fascinating little read. The story of the making of the dictionary itself was fascinating (and I may have to look out the book that tells that tale in more detail.) But the strange intersection of these two men’s lives was also intriguing and it made a gripping read, albeit one tinged with much sadness. Minor was plagued with delusions all his life and of course nowadays we would have medication to treat such things. But his work on the OED gave him purpose and pleasure and he had the best life he could hope for in the circumstances. It’s an admirable and enjoyable book and I think Winchester obviously succeeded in his aim to ensure that all the protagonists are properly remembered for posterity. If you like words, dictionaries and historical detecting, you’ll love this book!