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Oxford English Dictionary and Dr. Minor

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After weeks of dissecting Simon Winchester’s eloquently written tale of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, I have finally gotten to the end. And I must say it is one of the best novels I have had the chance to read over the past year. In the end, we see a happy ending come to fruition for our troubled protagonist Dr. Minor, whose work is brought to light and finally gets to meet face to face with the man who gives him an outlet for expression, Mr. Murray. Their friendship begins to blossom, and the men spend the best of the next 20 years collaborating on the project the two lovers with such a passion. As the years go by, Minors mental health begins to deteriorate, with his night terrors becoming almost crippling. So crippling in fact that Murray and his wife begin to fight for Minors return to the U.S. to live out his final days in the care of his family-one they successfully win. It wraps up as we see Crowthorne’s longest-serving inmate walk free after 38 years within its walls.

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In one of my earlier blog posts, I mentioned that Minor murdered a man on a false pretense that the man was an Irishman out looking for vengeance. Anyways, the man he murdered was named George Merrett, and his surviving widow Eliza. This poor woman who didn’t work (as George was the one taking home the bread, typical of the times) was now left on her own to feed eight children and herself. They probably would have starved to death if Minor didn’t have a guilty conscious. Feeling bad for murdering her husband he set up a support fund to make sure they were clothed fed and had to shelter.

Now we don’t know much about Eliza other than she went to go visit Minor in the asylum, forgave him for murdering her husband, and brought him books to help “furnish” his cell at the time. No physical description is given of her, the only description that was given was by Minor himself who told Murray on one of his visits that “she was not an unattractive woman” (Winchester 179), which makes me think for the beauty standards at the time that she was at least pale in complexion. A few other clues given about the widow is that she was very kind to Minor making regular visits to see him and that after the death of her husband she turned to the bottom.

Now I’m not sure if she truly was an alcoholic, or she just liked to drink. Minor says “she drank rather too much for comfort” (176), but then again, for the time period what was acceptable for a lady was very different for a man in terms of comfort. However, I find it interesting that there was no mention of her ever trying to find work. She simply relied on Minor’s money to support herself and her children, which demonstrates her frailty. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During that period it was expected of a woman to rely on a man. It shows her need to be protected and was considered part of her femininity. I think the mention that she started drinking after her husband’s death also reinforced the image that this poor woman had to be protected because she was something, well someone delicate.

In terms of the Feminist literary theory, there is not much there to be analyzed. There are almost no female characters in the novel whatsoever, Ms. Merrett being one of the few who has anything deeper than a brief mention. All the others that make appearances are treated as accessories to their male counterparts. When Murray first comes across the woman who would eventually become his partner, she is introduced as “Ada Ruthven, whose father worked for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway and was an admirer of Alexander von Humboldt” (53). Barely her own character, she is first known as “daughter of a railroad worker”.

At first, this seemed puzzling to me as a reader, with the movement we have seen of strong female leads and characters being the new norm today. But as I reflect on it now, it makes sense in terms of the time period in which this novel takes place. Victorian-era London was not the most progressive time period in history by any standards. In these times women were viewed as objects to their male partners and thought to be less intelligent and inferior to men. Women were without the right to vote or own property and were just beginning to enter the workforce (at a rate much lower than a man’s).

In conclusion, I believe that the women are not well represented in the novel, but not because of the author’s misogyny but because of the Victorian era in which the actual events took place. It is a non-fiction piece, that took place in a time where women were very much oppressed by their society as a whole. The goal of the dictionary itself was defined as a project for “the benefit and help of ladies, gentlewoman or any other unskillful persons whereby they may more easily and better understand many hard English words” (110). It only makes me think of the work done by female scholars that will forever go uncredited.

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