Dedications: A Taxonomy by Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson

Dedications: A Taxonomy

 

To SRW who suffered and was there

What better time than now, the season of gift-giving and goodwill, to consider the nature of the dedication? Like most dedications, the one with which this piece begins graces the entrance to the book from which it comes like a blue plaque on the face of a great house; and like most dedications, it is intensely irritating. You try to ignore the wording as you read on, but find it sticking to your shoe like gum. Who is ‘SRW’? How exactly did he or she ‘suffer’? In what sense were they ‘there’? Is it a joke or in earnest? What on earth does the message mean? The book has not even begun and a different story is in the making.

Before they turned into the cryptograms they are today, dedications were a form of patronage. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to his favourite author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a recluse who hid behind the curtains when the young Melville came bounding up to his front door. Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, whom she hated. Charlotte Brontë, ignorant of the fact that his wife was insane and confined to the top of their home, dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to William Thackeray. The only explanation for such an extraordinary coincidence, assumed the gossips, was that Brontë must have worked as a governess to Thackeray’s children and fallen in love with her employer.

Dedications are clearly a minefield, and those needing help in getting them right can turn to a number of websites, the most useful of which is Scribendi: ‘You want the dedication to mean something,’ reads one advice page, ‘but how do you make it work?’ A number of examples are offered under clear headings. There is formal and simple: ‘For my mother’; informal and simple: ‘This is for you, Mom’; informal and complex: ‘This is for you, Mom. Thanks for always being there for me. And for macaroni and cheese every Thursday’; informal with anecdote: ‘To Johnny, for the night in the car, the day on the beach, and the evening in jail – keep living the life, baby!’; or formal with anecdote: ‘This book is dedicated to Barbara Johnson, for her kindness and devotion, and for her endless support when Catherine was ill.’

If you want your dedication to contain more plot, I can suggest some other models. The first might be called Dedication as Noticeboard. The role of this type of dedication is to announce the arrival in your bed of a new and better lover, a recent example being a philosopher’s dedication of a formidable tome to a woman described as the ‘love of my life’, but whose existence had until then not been known to his family or friends. A subsection of this category is the Dedication as Renewal of Vows, used by authors such as Eugene O’Neill to inform the world that they have no intention of leaving their spouse. O’Neill’s dedication to his wife in Long Day’s Journey into Night is too lengthy to quote in full, but if you want to use it as a blueprint, here are the first few lines:

For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary.

Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day
celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to …
etc.

Dedication as Self-Abuse is a category presided over by Alice Walker, who offers Possessing the Secret of Joy to ‘the blameless vulva’ with ‘tenderness and respect’. I don’t know of a man who has given a book to his penis, but the Dedication as Gender Issue is increasingly popular: witness Maya Angelou’s dedication of The Heart of a Woman to the ‘many sister/friends whose love encourages me to spell my name: W O M A N’, after which comes a list of 14 female dedicatees.

A variation on the dedication to a patron is the Dedication as Advance Praise. ‘Advance praise’ is the term used by publishers to describe the hyberbolic gush bestowed on a soon-to-be-published book by its author’s literary friends; the Dedication as Advance Praise allows the author to bestow praise upon himself by way of a dedication to an esteemed writer who then presides over the book like a Rottweiler with bared teeth. Let us remember the Victorian politician and historian, Thorold Rogers, deriding the mutual and very public admiration of two contemporaries: ‘See, ladling butter from alternate tubs,/Stubbs butters Freeman, Freeman butters Stubbs.’

Not to be confused with the Dedication as Advance Praise is the Dedication for Advancement, which has the bonus of generating status anxiety among your friends. In 1948, Time magazine noted that Evelyn Waugh’s dedications were less ‘signs of love for chums’ than ‘proclamations of rungs in the social ladder successfully ascended’. The wife of Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet, was delighted to see that she was ‘six ahead’ of Diana Cooper, while Lord Brownlow was ‘very angry at being four down’ on Randolph Churchill.

The truth is that dedications, like most carefully chosen presents, are essentially aggressive. The author’s aggression is not usually direct – I have never seen a dedication written in open hatred – but phrased in such a way, by overstatement or understatement, that the dedicatee will appreciate his or her intention. On the one occasion I was a dedicatee, the author’s purpose was clearly to name and shame: I had been a useless friend during the writing of the book, the subject of which, the author knew, bored me. But there was a darker purpose to the dedication: so long as I was given the honour, other people were denied it. As Waugh understood, dedications are about exclusion. The stories they contain can be deciphered only by noting those to whom the book is specifically not dedicated. The dedications to my own books, seemingly harmless offerings to my baby daughter, my parents, a much-missed great aunt and a dying grandmother, are actually weapons of mass destruction aimed at all those other people in my life at the time – husbands, friends, colleagues, siblings – who, unlike ‘SRW’, were not ‘there’ and did not ‘suffer’ nearly enough.

But less bah humbug. I’ll end with the ideal dedication, and one that should serve as a model to us all. From the pen of P G Wodehouse: ‘To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.’

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