The art of book dedications

Lizzie Enfield 5 April 2021

The fascinating history behind these often-cryptic few opening words that make a book dedication 

Hemingway was once challenged to write a telling story in six words and came up with his famous: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” But often, without realising, many authors tell a much bigger story in the few brief words contained in their book dedication. These sparse offerings, dropped into preliminary white pages, say far more than the brevity suggests.

Behind every “For Charlotte” or “Michael” or enigmatic series of initials is the tale of the relationship between the author and the person to whom they have dedicated their book.

My latest novel, Life After Beth, is out this summer and I have yet to write the dedication. It’s my fifth novel and I’ve already used up all the usual suspects.

Spouses and lovers 

Husbands and wives, partners and lovers generally come first and sometimes both feature on the same page! Ayn Rand dedicated Atlas Shrugged to Frank O’Connor, her husband, and Nathanial Branden, her lover.

Some are touching tributes to a long-lasting partnership. “In the vastness of space and immensity of time, it is my joy to spend a planet and an epoch with Annie,” wrote Carl Sagan to his wife in Cosmos.

Other husbands have become weary with wife dedications. “Once again to Zelda” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in his sixth novel, The Great Gatsby. By this time their marriage was not a happy one but the dedication was a little less belittling than this from geologist Ira B Joralemon for whom romance was clearly in minerals rather than his women. His book Romantic Copper is dedicated to his wife: “She ain’t so good lookin’ so that any other fellar besides myself is likely to get stuck on her.”


Zelda Fitzgerald. Image via wiki commons

Graham Greene left his wife Vivian in 1948 and embarked on a series of affairs including one with Lady Catherine Watson also known as “C” to whom he dedicates The End of the Affair.

Friends will be friends 

Friends are perhaps a safer choice. J K Rowling dedicated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “For Sean PF Harris getaway driver and foul weather friend.” He was the first of her friends who learned to drive and the first person to encourage her ambition to be a writer. 

"Jane Austin dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, a political move since she was privately contemptuous of him"

Antoine De Saint Exupery asks the children who read The Little Prince to indulge his dedication to a grown-up, Leon Werth; “I have a serious reason, he is the best friend I have in the world.”

In the very early days of dedications, writers were bound to offer books to their patrons. Both Horace and Virgil dedicated to Gaius Maecenas and, centuries later, Jane Austin dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, a political move since she was privately contemptuous of him. 

Charlotte Brontë became the subject of literary London gossip when she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray, by way of a thank you for his enthusiastic review. Readers saw unintended parallels between Mr Rochester and Thackeray, whose own wife was insane…

A family affair 

I know only too well that anyone who lives in the same house as a writer must put up with someone who is there but not always fully present. Willkie Collins dedicates The Moonstone to his mother perhaps by way of apology for all the hours spent in the attic. Mary Shelley dedicated Frankenstein to her father, her greatest champion, and Martin Amis his opus London Fields to Kingsley even though he had openly stated he struggled to read his son’s books.

"The more books you have published, the more scope there is for creative dedication"

I too have some experience of parental reticence and dedicated my third novel Living With It to my parents: “Not your sort of book, and you don’t have to read it.” My second Uncoupled was to my children, who were very young when it came out: “You shouldn’t be reading this, yet.”

PG Wodehouse’s daughter, Leonora, got a different kind of nod in The Heart of a Goof:Without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement, this book would've been finished in half the time.”

The more books you have published, the more scope there is for creative dedication. Agatha Christie inscribed The Secret Adversary “To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure.”

Perhaps my favourite is Neil Gaiman’s in Anansi Boys, which is for anyone who has picked up a book and found the author dedicated it to someone else: ”Not this time. Because we haven't yet met/have only a glancing acquaintance/are just crazy about each other/haven't seen each other in much too long/are in someway related/will never meet, but will, I trust, despite that, always think fondly of each other! This one's for you. With you know what, and you probably know why.”

 

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