Books: In the alphabet soup

John Walsh takes a trip to Victorian Broadmoor, where he comes across a florid episode in the history of lexicography
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The Surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the love of words by Simon Winchester

Viking, pounds 20

For nine-tenths of its length, The Surgeon of Crowthorne is a footnote. A big, fat, 200-page, floridly narrated, sumptuously evoked and fruitily, exhaustively, elaborated footnote perhaps, but a footnote none the less. The text to which it forms such an appendage is on pages 305-307 of Caught in the Web of Words, K M Elisabeth Murray's biography of her grandfather, James Murray, the Victorian polymath and first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. In these brief paragraphs, all the salient facts are offered about the life of Dr William Chester Minor, who is the peculiar core of Winchester's book.

Dr Minor was an American army surgeon who served in the Civil War, where, after being forced to brand an Irish deserter upon the cheek with an incriminating "D", he started to go mad. He suffered paranoid delusions that thousands of Irishmen were out to get him. He quarrelled with friends and invited them to duel to the death. Diagnosed as suffering incurably from "monomania", he was committed to an asylum but was released in 1871, whereupon he embarked for London with a letter of introduction to John Ruskin.

In London, one Saturday night, he encountered George Merritt, a stoker at the Red Lion Brewery, and shot him dead with his army pistol. He was found guilty but insane and committed to Broadmoor hospital for life. There he surrounded himself with books, which he bought and read obsessively. In due course he saw one of Dr Murray's fly-posters asking for volunteers who would send in rare words and apt quotations for the great Dictionary, and over the next 35 years became one of the OED's star contributors.

The climax of the story is the meeting between the two men in 1896 when James Murray visited Minor after 20 years' correspondence, thinking he must be a well-off literary recluse. He found himself in the country's leading asylum for the criminally insane, meeting its longest-staying inmate.

That's the basic story Winchester has to tell, aided by newly released files and case notes from the Washington hospital where Dr Minor ended his life. He recounts it well but, instead of adding much to our knowledge of his subject, he bulks out the narrative with wedges of extraneous detail. If you want to know the socio-topography of Lambeth's backstreets in 1872, or the application letter James Murray wrote to the British Museum in 1867; if you want a chronicle of Ulysses S Grant's strategy against the Southern states, or a potted history of lexicography or a chat around the subject of Schizophrenia Then and Now, Winchester is your man.

The reader starts to feel like an Internet user faced with a "Hypertext" document. Click on certain words and you get a flood of data to distract you from what you're trying to read. Fascinating, but, as Uma Thurman remarked in Pulp Fiction, it's slightly more information than one absolutely needs.

Towards the end of the book Winchester springs two surprises. First, that the story of Murray visiting Broadmoor and finding that his star contributor was a lunatic, is fiction. In fact, Murray had known about Minor's condition for years. Second, that Minor performed his most radical piece of surgery upon his own person, out of sexual guilt while in the late stages of dementia praecox.

Winchester returns obsessively and amusingly to the details of Minor's delusions. He always woke up haggard with exhaustion, claiming that, during the night, assailants had come up through the floor or small boys had descended from the rafters, and had forced him to perform indecent acts; they chloroformed him, poured poison into his mouth through a funnel, pressed a cold iron against his teeth, pierced his spinal marrow with instruments of torture, even took him to Constantinople in a flying machine and forced him to behave in a lewd manner in public "with cheap women and small girls".

The rest of the time, Minor was a rational, meticulous and charming intellectual. Winchester points out how much he resembled James Murray, the epitome of Victorian rectitude (even physically), and how his invaluable word- searches were a corollary of his madness, but fails to illuminate how the different sides of his nature fitted together: how the lunatic, the lecher and the lexicographer were of imagination all compact.

Winchester writes a graceful, rather stiff prose with occasional lapses into mixed metaphor ("The daily [asylum] reports flow in a kind of seamless syrup of insanity"). By the end of the book, he seems to have been himself assailed by a very Victorian kind of pomposity, even in the acknowledgements: "Finally my wife Catherine saw to it that I remained undisturbed, and offered generously the kind of serenity and sanctuary that the writing of a tale like this more than amply demands and deserves...". Pshaw, my dear sir!

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