Christopher Howse

Dogs in Greece, a nuisance

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edited by Hazel K. Bell

The British Library, pp. 160, £

In 'The Sussex Vampires', Watson takes down from the shelf the great index volume for V; Holmes balances it on his knee and reads:

Voyage of the Gloria Scott. Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila ... Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman ... Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder...

And then he gets to 'Vampires'.

The entries give some of that mysterious country outside the stories which, as with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, make the oeuvre so compelling. As an index they are lacking. For a start they aren't in strict alphabetical order, and if it was a 'great volume' it might take some time to get to Vampires via Venomous lizard - and in any case, why isn't that under Lizard, venomous?

Utility is not the only purpose of indexes. As Hazel K. Bell shows, they have entertainment value. And there is a strange beauty in the cumulative piling up of off-beat entries:

Bag, souls of persons deposited in a

Birds, cause headache through clipped hair
Cat's cradle, forbidden to boys among the Esqimaux
Charms, to prevent the sun from going down Conception in a woman caused by trees
Fairies, averse to iron
Magnets thought to keep brothers at unity
Sardines, worshipped by Indians of Peru

Those come from Sir James Frazer's single-volume epitome of The Golden Bough, that wrong-headed work. And these come from an index to the opinionated De Quincey:

Dogs in Greece, a nuisance

Horses, weeping
Leibnitz, died partly from the fear of not being murdered
Mahomet not a great man
Muffins, eating, a cause of suicide
Spitting, art of
Women, can die grandly

It does make one want to read the book. The index to Enquire Within Upon Everything (78th edition, 1888) might make one wonder about relying on it at all:

Beds for the Poor, How to Make

Bone, to Stain
In Throat, How to Act
Character, Manly, Elements of
Cheese, Blue Mould on
Daughters, Management of
Dirty People to be Avoided
Dutch People, Cleanliness of
Falling into Water, How to Act
Persons on Fire
Quadrupeds, to Stuff
Quotations, Greek and Latin, to be avoided
Taste of Medicine, to Prevent
Window-Curtains on Fire, How to Act

Do you think it would be easier to find the right entry if a bone was in your throat or if you were in deep water? Anyway, in the 19th century there were still a scandalous proportion of books of history, biography and so on with no index. Gilbert White had shown the way in 1788 with an index of his own devising, even though he found its compilation an activity 'full as entertaining as that of darning socks'. But that is not its effect, which is quite in harmony with the charmed valley of Selborne:

Castration, its strange effects

Cats, house, strange that they should be so fond of fish
Daws breed in unlikely places
Hogs, would live, if suffered, to a considerable age
Rooks, perfectly white
----- an amusing anecdote about
Slugs, very injurious to wheat just come out of the ground, by eating
Tortoise, a family one
----- more particulars of
----- further circumstances about

A different flavour is provided by Thomas Carlyle's index to some of his pamphlets of the 1850s, in which we find: 'Premier: mad methods of choosing a, 84, 159; a more unbeautiful class never raked out of the ooze, 114.' Samuel Johnson was not known for his reticent speech either, and in a 24-page index to an edition of Boswell from 1900 we find the useful entry: 'Blockhead, Johnson applies the term to a housemaid in Birmingham.'

Thomas Browne gave the world in Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errours, a work that is practically an expanded index in itself. But it was not alphabeticised, a useful task supplied by Simon Wilkin's 67-page index for his edition of 1835 (still the best, for this and for incorporating the manuscript marginalia made in a copy of the first edition by Dean Christopher Wren, Christopher's father; it is much more helpful than Keynes's self-regarding 20th-century edition). Under 'Hares, Rabbits' Wilkin gives: 'none in Iceland, 22; and cabbage, Cato's chief diet, 510.'

Ruskin, in indexing his own Fors Clavigera, came up with the novel idea of correcting some of the judgments he had made in it. So we find:

Artists are included under the term workmen, 10, but I see the passage is inaccurate, - for I of course meant to include musicians among artists, and therefore among working men; but musicians are not 'developments of tailor or carpenter'. Also it may be questioned why I do not count the work given to construct poetry, when I count that given to perform music; this will be explained in another place.

Hazel K. Bell, has been an indexer since 1965, and for 18 years edited the Society of Indexers' journal, sensibly called The Indexer. She knows what she is talking about. Obviously I much enjoyed this book and would have liked it for Christmas.

I think I found a misprint on page 145, where the reign of Philip IV of Spain is given as '1621-1625' instead of '1621-1665', but I haven't yet discovered if it is an error in the original, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. When I find a copy it should be easy to check: the novel has a 58-page index.