Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language: Encaustic

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‘I hope you’re not having a go at P.D. James,’ said my husband, looking up from Devices and Desires (1989), which I had just finished. I am certainly not, for I admire and enjoy the author. My article last year about mistakes in Death Comes to Pemberley was intended to raise the question of the responsibility of the publisher of such a successful author. Does Faber not have a duty to correct literal and verbal errors?

Thus, in The Lighthouse (2005), we read of a house with ‘a ponderous central tower, so like a battlement that the absence of turrets seemed an architectural aberration’. Obviously, it should be ‘so like a turret that the absence of battlements’.

In Devices and Desires there is a characterisation of a Victorian church as the ‘ugly repository of polished pine, acoustic tiles’. Acoustic? It should be encaustic. There are such things as acoustic tiles, but encaustic tiles go with Victorianism. Lady James might even have had in mind Betjeman’s poem ‘The Church’s Restoration’. Betjeman ends two successive stanzas with the words ‘varnishéd pitch-pine’ and ‘encaustic tile’.

Encaustic means, etymologically, ‘burnt in’, as with enamelled or glazed work fired with the clay. In 1860, in Self-Help, Samuel Smiles, as if he knew, praised Herbert Minton because ‘in the manufacture of encaustic tiles he stood without a rival’. Minton’s encaustic tiles certainly remain monuments of Victorian taste. Pugin used them at Jesus College, Cambridge. George Gilbert Scott, enthusiastic in the use of encaustic tiles, noted in his Lectures on Medieval Architecture (1878) the perfect state of preservation of some ancient examples. But Minton did not always achieve such standards: in Bishop West’s chantry at Ely Cathedral, for example, the yellow enamel of his encaustic tiles, laid in 1868, has worn away.

Acoustic tiles are less redolent, as it were, of period associations. Wallace Sabine, their inventor, laboured in the 1890s to improve the acoustics of a lecture theatre at Harvard. The unit of sound absorption is called a sabin. I don’t quite understand the science, but nor do I understand why technology seems not to make it easier for publishers to correct verbal errors in bestsellers.