Dedicating a book to someone is powerful. It’s an announcement with trumpets.
We’ve all read the thanks that go on for several pages. They embrace everyone from the author’s family, agent and editor, to anyone who gave them help with research or did the typing.
Justified? Probably. Sincere? Mostly. But a dedication? No.
To dedicate a book to someone is to give them a public gift. The writer is sending a personal message in a public forum. It blurs the boundaries.
As such, it carries weight. It may be blatant flattery, of course. Or it may be a profound compliment, a private joke, or even something so intensely intimate that only the writer and dedicatee wholly understands. But it is out there for all to see and ponder over.
And ponder they do. Consider Mr W.H, “the onlie begetter” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Generations of scholars have posited competing candidates. They argue, too, about whether he can be identified with the beautiful youth who figures in the poems.
A couple of years ago an American academic came up with the suggestion that Mr W.H. was a publisher . He’d brought out work by other playwrights, including Ben Jonson. And he died a couple of years before the Sonnets were published. So the dedication wasn’t a tantalising declaration of forbidden love. Not even a romantic friendship-with-advice. It was more like a funeral tribute to a benefactor of Shakespeare’s profession.
Wilde – whose short story poked fun at the whole Mr W.H. industry and ended by concluding that he was a boy actor – would have been disappointed.
Dedicating to a Family Member
Most dedications are emotionally charged in some way, often mysteriously more so than they actually say.
My beloved PG Wodehouse dedicated The Heart of a Goof, published by Herbert Jenkins in April 15 1926, “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time”.
It is a good joke and, as so often, he’d used it before. He dedicated A Gentleman of Leisure to his mate Herbert Westbrook, in very similar terms. Westbrook was probably the model for PGW’s cheerful sponger, Ukridge.
What is truly touching, though, is that Leonora was not his natural daughter. In 1914 PGW had married her mother, Ethel Wayman, complete with resident eleven-year-old.
Wodehouse never looked back. He clearly adored her, called her Snorky and wrote some of his liveliest letters to her. He referred to her as his “confidential secretary and adviser” and they laughed a lot together.
She sounds lovely in Frances Donaldson’s marvellous letters, A Woman’s War, too.
When Leonora died unexpectedly, after a routine operation, PGW was devastated. He wrote “I feel that nothing matters much now.” But as an example of perfect parenting and childing their relationship – and that dedication – take some beating, I feel.
Dedicating to the Beloved – Maybe
Graham Greene was an inveterate dedicator. The Power and the Glory was dedicated “For Gervase”. He was Gervase Mathew, a Dominican friar from Oxford’s Blackfriars, expert on Byzantine art and sometime member of the Inklings.
Greene dedicated The Quiet American to René Berval, editor of France-Asie in Saigon, and his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Indeed, Greene borrowed her name for his enigmatic heroine because, he said, it is easy for westerners to pronounce. He emphasises (along with listing borrowed and altered facts) that this is with their permission. Given his heroine’s equivocal role in the books, it was the least he could do.
But his truly intriguing dedication is to The End of the Affair. I admit that this is one of the few books that has ever made me so mad, I flung the paperback at the wall when I finished it. In the UK it was dedicated “To C.” In the USA that changed to “Catherine”.
She was Catherine Walston, whom Greene met when he became her godfather. Like him, she became an adult convert to the Catholic Church. Who knows whether Greene’s dedication was meant to signal that the story was a roman a clef? Their real life affair seems to have been a lot more complicated – and fun – than his horrible immorality tale. What’s more,the real hero of it, as evidenced in his last generous and dignified letter to Greene, was her husband.
Dedicating to the Beloved – Certainly
It was frankly a relief to turn from that story to this dedication, pointed out to me by my dear friend, teacher extraordinary, Rosemary Morgan.
Eric Van Lustbader writes best selling rough, tough action suspense, including eleven of the Bourne series. Floating City contains all of his trade mark thrills and issues. It is set in the Vietnamese jungle where a Ninja faces a debt of honour and a moral dilemma. It is the 5th in his Nicholas Linnear series.
The dedication? “For my beloved Victoria: my tireless advocate; my best friend – without her I would no doubt float away.” (How I know that feeling of drifting uncontrollably inside a book.) His wife, Victoria Lustbader, is an a author too.
Dedicating to the One Who Inspired You
I really set off on my current enquiry into dedications when I picked up an long-treasured copy of Poseidon’s Gold by Lindsey Davis. It contained a dedication that I had never noticed before:
“In memory of Rosemary Sutcliff who died while this was being written: on behalf of all the children who know how far it is from Venta to the mountains.”
The answer is “all of two hundred miles”. It is in The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles.
I know that because I was one of those children. Rosemary Sutcliff took me, too, adventuring through Roman Britain and north into the wild lands beyond Hadrian’s Wall in search of the lost legion and their eagle standard.
If ever anyone deserved their dedication, it was Rosemary Sutcliff. She gets one from Simon Scarrow, too, in Gladiator Fight for Freedom: “For Rosemary Sutcliff who has inspired so many of us to love history.”
There may well be more. Her historical imagination was impeccable. And the books are as exciting to me now as they were when I first read them. In fact I’m about to re-read the lot, now that I’ve remembered. Thanks to that dedication!
Dedicatees to Come
These are just a few of the dedications I have explored, since coming across Ms Davis’s tribute. Others I’ve found are equally touching, intriguing, mysterious and, upon probing, educational. You may well find them as fascinating as I do. So:
to be continued…