(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many who care deeply about using the English language in its most correct and effective manner have often depended on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) to help resolve phrasing difficulties or to persuade colleagues of sticky points. Jenny McMorris, archivist for the Oxford English Dictionaries, has delved deeply into the Dictionaries’ archives and others to produce a biography of Henry Watson Fowler, author of that classic reference.

The ten pages of endnotes list much personal correspondence between Fowler and his friends, family, and publishing associates, along with century-old newspapers, army records, and Oxford archives. The letters, especially, bring life to the descriptions of Fowler’s attitudes, opinions, and behavior. Prominent among these are the letters of Fowler’s lifelong friend Gordon Coulton. Along with the story of Fowler’s life, the book describes the publishing of several important books, including The King’s English (1906), A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911). Its publication coincides with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first publication of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which has never been out of print, although it has been revised twice, in 1965 and 1996.

There is also a forward by Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998). The Warden of Englishappears to be a natural follow-on to The Professor and the Madman, which described the beginnings of the massive Oxford English Dictionary, its founding editor James Murray, and a mysterious contributor, Dr. W. C. Minor. The two histories are not at all alike, however. WhereThe Professor and the Madman is written in a novelist’s style, developing its characters and following a plot, The Warden of English has a more scholarly tone. Each of the fifteen chapters has copious endnotes, mostly pointing to the Oxford archives. McMorris quotes liberally from the various letters and publications, not only giving some of the flavor of the times but also lending the book the air of a thesis.

She faced a daunting task in researching the life of Henry Fowler, with no cache of family papers or albums and hardly any survivors remaining alive to be questioned, only a few people who still remember when, as children, they were taken to see old “H. W.” Fowler had very little social life, and he even turned down an invitation to attend a celebratory dinner with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. As a rule, the closest he came to getting out into society was writing letters to The Times.

McMorris has pieced together Henry Fowler’s story as thoroughly as it can be done, given those restrictions. She begins with several pages of biographical information about Fowler’s parents, Robert and Caroline. Fowler, twenty-one when their father died of typhoid, was the oldest of eight children; he had to help his mother sort out the family’s affairs. Two of the youngest boys, Frank (then nine) and Arthur (then eleven), were later to be Fowler’s collaborators.

When he was a student at Rugby, he began his lifelong enthusiam for both cross-country running and swimming. He ran and swam every day of his life, where possible, until his dying years. He also excelled at Latin and Greek. Although he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, he earned only mediocre marks there.

He taught for two terms in Scotland, then moved on to Sedbergh School, in Yorkshire, where he taught for seventeen years. He invented a system of cards to help small boys unravel the intricacies of syntax, a system that was used for years after his departure. It was also at Sedbergh that he developed lifelong friendships with Coulton, Bernard Tower, Henry Hart, and other men.

He eventually left the school, partly because he was unable in good conscience to prepare boys for religious confirmation. For some time he was careful to conceal that he was no Christian, but he also disapproved of the arrogance of an agnostic friend. When he married, he acquiesced to having a church wedding. While his wife attended church regularly, he did not. Still, he always made sure that she...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)