Saturday, 3 November 2007

Book Dedications

This article is dedicated to my brother, Graham Barry, on the basis that one cannot divorce one's brother - unless you are a girl from Alabama - and are unlikely to disown him, disinherit him, and in my case even diss him; and for all the kindnesses he does me and all the ways in which he has enriched my life, blah de blah de blah....

In the early days of book dedications the author's primary purpose was to flatter and gratify his (there being no female authors in those days) rich and the famous patron. Horace's "Odes" and Virgil's "Georgics" were both dedicated to their wealthy patron Maecaenas. One of the most spectacular of this type of dedication can be found in the King James Bible, in which God is thanked for the best day's work that he ever did in putting James I on the throne. "Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the father of all mercies, bestowed upon the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty's Royal Person to rule and reign over us." And so on for about a thousand grovelling words. At least Paul Scarron was honest when he wrote his 1653 dedication of "Don Japhet of Armenia" to the French King - I will try to convince your Majesty that you would do no great wrong, if you did me a little good... Thirty years later Don Josef de la Vega was back to good old-fashioned grovelling, dedicating "The Triumphs of the Eagle" - To the Unvanquished John the Third, King of Poland, grand duke of Lithuania, Russia, Prussia, Masowia, Samogitia, Livonia, Kiev, Podolia, Podlasie, Smolensk, Volhynia, etc, etc, ... a power which makes one blind by its brilliant rays... Accept, your majesty, these rhetorical flowers which my mind dedicates to your Greatness with affection and humility....

Thomas Chandler Haliburton devoted six pages of his humorous work "The Letter-bag of the Great Western", published in 1840, to Lord John Russell though 'you have never seen, and probably never heard of, the author' and despite believing 'Dedications are mendacious effusions...'

Some of my favourites are the incomprehensible ones like that of Holly Fox in "This Way Up" - For Mum, in loving memory of the levitating donkey, a chimney brush in the next street, and the fresh egg wars. Or Audrey Thomas in "Goodbye Harold (Good Luck)" - To Claire, who doesn't laugh (too hard) when I look for the iron in the fridge. And Anne McCaffrey's "The Tower and the Hive" - to Graham Hamilton For blue Jaguars and Eddie Stobbart Hauliers.

An article by John Sutherland in The Guardian (Fruday 9yth Jwne 2006) commented on the dangers of dedications to wives, sweethearts, etc...." Peter Carey - two-time Booker winner and one-time divorcee - is reportedly asking his Australian publishers to remove the dedications (four, by my count) to the ex-Mrs Carey, Alison Summers, from future editions of his work. His current novel, Theft, dwells on the "evisceration" the central character undergoes at the hands of the divorce lawyers. "Alison Summers, with all my love" was the dedication to Oscar and Lucinda. He may have toyed with "Alison Summers: with a sizeable proportion of my cash" for Theft."

As far back as 1913 book dedications were a subject of enough interest to occasion the publication of a book by Mary Elizabeth Brown. She didn't dedicate it to anyone! The Contents List shows that dedications have changed little over the last century.

The love lives of many authors can be traced through their successive dedications and I suspect many an author has regretted the 'lifelong' love he had declared in an early work. Few are like Brian Moore who managed to dedicate novel after novel to the same wife - now adding "For Jean, comme d'habitude," F Scott Fitzgerald was another who managed to dedicate more than one work to the same wife - Once again to Zelda. Robert B. Parker dedicated all his books to his wife of 50 years, Joan, but at least he does it poetically as for example in "Hugger Mugger" - Joan: the ocean's roar, a thousand drums.

Nevertheless, most people continue to dedicate to their partners, often adding, like Denis Healey to Edna, "...of course." Some go on to use the cliché about 'without whose help, etc...' and this has become such a standard that one American author is said to have revolted against it by dedicating the work to his family "but for whom it would have been finished in half the time....".

More significant are the dedications to deceased parents or children, particularly the latter. American naturalist Edwin Way Teale, author of "Autumn Across America", lost his son at the age of 18 in the Second World War. The book was dedicated - to David who traveled with us in our hearts. A sentiment which will be echoed by all bereaved parents.

Friends are named in many modern books like Anne McCaffrey's "Freedom's Landing" -- This book is dedicated to the memory of a special fan/friend, Judy Voros. Hope heaven has chocolate (but it must!). But I have always wondered how you choose which friends to put in a dedication. McCaffrey solved the problem by writing so many books she ran out of people to whom she could dedicate them. Nevertheless her "Freedom's Ransom" apologised in advance if she had forgotten anyone when she listed her on-line chatroom friends. At one time the writer's typist and proofreader came in for thanks but nowadays it is the person who provides the computing support. For a full list of the McCaffrey dedications see

Helen Hanff is another who chose a friend in "Underfoot in Show Business". The dedication reads - The day I finished the book, I celebrated by phoning Maxine in Hollywood. 'Do you want to hear the dedication?' I asked her. 'Go ahead,' said Maxine. So I read it to her: To all the stagestruck kids who ever have, or ever will, set out to crash the theatre. 'What do you think of it?' I asked. 'It's much too sentimental,' said Maxine. 'Why don't you just dedicate it to me?' So what the hell: This book is for Maxine.

Admiring but not knowing the dedicatee can be equally problematic. Charlotte Bronte dedicated "Jane Eyre" to William Thackeray. She must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn't helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. The Nineteenth Century paparazzi were quick to assume that "Currer Bell" had worked for Thackeray and the two had been lovers.

It is not only books that were dedicated and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony was famously dedicated to Napoleon until he fell out with Bonaparte's machinations and marches across Europe and scratched it out.

Pets and other animals are popular dedicatees and whilst the dedication of Colonel Buchanan's 1926 work "Sahara" to his camel (Feri n'Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart) might be an obvious choice some are less so as shown by Larry McMurtry in "The Desert Rose" - To Leslie, for the use of her goat. Helen M Winslow dedicated "Concerning Cats" to - The "Pretty Lady" who never betrayed a secret, broke a promise, or proved an unfaithful friend; who had all the virtues and none of the failings of her sex.

Inanimate objects rarely make it into dedications but appropriately Cornell Woolrich dedicated "The Bride Wore Black" to - Remington Portable No. NC69411

But the simple ones remain the best like Agatha Christie's in her second novel - To all those who lead monotonous lives; and Geoffrey Chaucer's in "A Treatise on the Astrolabe" - To Litel Lowis my sone.... purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.

In the early 1900s there were various annual editions of "The Complete Cynic" by Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford, and Addison Mizner, each with its own dedciation. I like the one for the 1907 edition -

To Foolish-wise and Wisely-gay
Of whate'er country they may be,
We dedicate this little gem
By Ollie, Addison and Me,
In hopes they'll buy in massive lots
And help us boil our little pots.

(A potboiler is a piece of literary rubbish created for the sole purpose of making money quickly or to maintain a steady income for the artist - artistic values being subordinated to saleability.)

Robert Beckman, author of books on investment, similarly acknowledged the value of his readers in one of his modern works with this less subtle dedication - to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books.

We finish with a suggested dedication from a fellow blogger... - to my Mum, you might not want to read this, it gets gory and sexual in the middle parts of the book.

And another that never quite got published; from the proposed "Telephone Triage Protocols for Nursing Assistants" - To the family of Steven Hofford, words cannot express my deepest regret. Please accept this training manual as proof that I will not rest until every nursing assistant understands that patients rarely make jokes about life-threatening emergencies over the telephone.

(This last quotation is dedicated to Timothy McSweeney, whose backpack has a pocket designed for loaves of bread -

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