A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is the most recent book I finished. In fact, I finished it in bed this morning, drinking coffee. Bliss.
I enjoy reading Victoriana, and this true story of Victorian genius and insanity, murder and madness is a joy to read.
I'd give a ***spoiler warning*** now, except you'll know what I am about to say before you've finished the first two pages.
Broadly, it is the story of the conception through completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, and of some of the people who made it happen. It is the story of Dr. James Murray, a visionary whose life was dedicated to editing the dictionary. More than that, it is the story of Dr. William Chester Minor.
Dr. Minor was trained at Yale, became a fine physician, and joined the Union army during the Civil War. By the time the war ended, he was behaving in a very strange manner. After a brief stay in a mental hospital, he went on tour in Europe, landing in London. The Army had retired him with a pension. While there, his monomania manifested itself very publicly when his demons drove him to shoot and kill a complete stranger.
He subsequently was tried and found to be mad. He was incarcerated at Broadmoor (formerly Bedlam) for almost four decades. While there, his money and status as a physician bought him favors like a two-room suite, and writing and painting materials.
During his time at Broadmoor, he learned about the O.E.D. and started corresponding with James Murray, and became one of the most prolific researchers and contributors to what was to become the largest publication ever. He compiled a large library and spent his days researching words and quotes for the dictionary, and his nights piling furniture against his doors to keep demons out of his room, and , in his version of reality, being violated in an unspeakable manner by young girls.
Quite the Victorian schizophrenic. His preoccupation with sexuality led to further shocking complications in his fractured life, but one thing was clear and true. His intellect and interst in the dictionary is what makes W.C. Morris a tragic character, and The Professor and the Madman a compelling read.
[Image of Dr. Minor from Vauxhallsociety.org]