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The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler Paperback – 10 Oct 2002

3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 262 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (10 Oct. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198605250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198605256
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 2.1 x 12.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,788,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

"A generous, sympathetic biography of a shy scholar (1858-1933) whose Modern English Usage (1926) earned him a prominent place in the pantheon of language mavens.... An amiable account of a gentle man whose greatest love was language."--Kirkus Reviews"McMorris illuminates not only Fowler's life but also his work and the difficulties and controversies that surrounded it...McMorris' well-researched book will appeal to the same audience...as Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman."--Booklist "A generous, sympathetic biography of a shy scholar (1858-1933) whose Modern English Usage (1926) earned him a prominent place in the pantheon of language mavens.... An amiable account of a gentle man whose greatest love was language."--Kirkus Reviews "McMorris illuminates not only Fowler's life but also his work and the difficulties and controversies that surrounded it...McMorris' well-researched book will appeal to the same audience...as Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman."--Booklist "A generous, sympathetic biography of a shy scholar (1858-1933) whose Modern English Usage (1926) earned him a prominent place in the pantheon of language mavens.... An amiable account of a gentle man whose greatest love was language."--Kirkus Reviews "McMorris illuminates not only Fowler's life but also his work and the difficulties and controversies that surrounded it...McMorris' well-researched book will appeal to the same audience...as Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman."--Booklist "A generous, sympathetic biography of a shy scholar (1858-1933) whose Modern English Usage (1926) earned him a prominent place in the pantheon of language mavens.... An amiable account of a gentle man whose greatest love was language."--Kirkus Reviews"McMorris illuminates not only Fowler's life but also his work and the difficulties and controversies that surrounded it...McMorris' well-researched book will appeal to the same audience...as Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman."--Booklist --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Publisher

The publication of The Warden of English by Jenny McMorris puts Simon Winchester (author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne and Krakatoa) in a nostalgic mood. In the foreword to The Warden of English he writes:

From time to time letters of inquiry, admiration, or amiable dispute still arrive at the University Press in Oxford, addressed to Henry Watson Fowler, though it is now nearly 70 years since his death. The older inhabitants of the pretty little Somerset village of Hinton St George still just remember him--the slightly terrifying "HW", sitting at his desk in his cool limestone house, immersed in patient scholarship. And the book that all his thinkings and ponderings created, and which prompts the continuing light drizzle of optimistic letters to the Press--the blue volume known formally as A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, but which we all call simply "Fowler"--remains with us, as fresh and stern as though the author were still alive, advising and cajoling all of us to write and speak more fluently and properly.

The book, "the general vade-mecum of English writing", as its author once described it, advises and cajoles in such a schoolmasterly way that we can still just hear the voice, quavering with age and infirmity perhaps, but somehow still clear enough to allow us to suppose indeed that Henry Fowler might be here amongst us still, offering his kindly counsel whenever we are lexically challenged, verbally stumped, or simply know not what to say.

There seems to have been more than a little of old Mr Chips about this curious, eccentric, decent and very English man. Few can be the households that have not been touched in some way by his rather tweedy, tobacco-scented, bespectacled teachings. The schoolboy who wonders at the difference between a semi-colon and its cousin; the secretary who needs to know if it is better to write "alright" or "all right"; the noisy uncle who wants to settle once and for all the vexing argumentation over the split infinitive--all of such people, and all of us, turn to Fowler with equal and familiar ease. I sometimes think it is as if we are picking up the telephone, hearing it ring on the polished mahogany side table in the far-away, flag-stoned Somerset hall and asking questions of the kindly old gent who answers, certain he will set us right.

Henry Fowler was an unusual man, it is true. We might have ragged him, with his strange shyness and his eccentric dress, his passions for early morning runs and all those swims, those endless swims, in water as cold as could be borne. I cherish one image, not a scholarly one at all: it is of Henry Fowler in what looks today like an absurdly old-fashioned swimming costume, all zebra stripes and inconveniently sited lumps, just back from his morning dip in the waters off the island of Guernsey, where he and brother Frank then lived, ready for a day of lexicographical toils. Yet whatever the degree of mild amusement such memories trigger, we are--just as the schoolboys were with Mr Chips--inexpressibly fond of the old man too, and we perhaps worried there might come a time when he was no longer around to dispense his wisdom and his cool authority--after which, we fretted, to whom would we turn in our distress?

But of course there was never a need to fret: Fowler seems always to be there, the book if not the man, reprinted again and again, a constant comfort. All his doings seem to have been imbued with decency, goodness, principle and propriety. He believed in etiquette, but was not a pedant. He was correct, but not too stuffy. He was careless of money, sometimes sending back to Oxford sums the Press insisted on paying him for his works. He seemed in manner neither to have been pompous nor pretentious. He just seemed to know what was right--he taught it and he lived as he taught. Despite his crippling shyness he managed to project always a comfortable intimacy--an image so very different from the aloofness of most dictionary men, and one that has endeared him to us down the years.

And he was wonderfully kind, as one instance powerfully suggests. Though he cared not one whit for the teachings of the church, he knew that his abundant wife Jessie had loved them, and had particularly loved the peals of the broken bells of Hinton St George. Once she had died he arranged, quite anonymously, that they should be repaired and re-hung once again so that she could hear them ring perfectly from her place of rest.

It saddened him that young Frank, who, until his death from consumption after the Great War was his co-editor on earlier dictionaries, could never share in the pleasure he won for himself from the reception of his Modern English Usage, and so he dedicated it to his memory. "I think of it as it should have been", he wrote, "with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his 12-years-older partner."

A sense of goodness and decency to the end seems to have infused this strange, unsocial, learned and endearingly funny-peculiar figure. Read about both him and his unforgettable books in the pages that follow, and know that thanks to a remarkable intellectual partnership forged over the years between the late Henry Watson Fowler and his wonderfully enthusiastic admirer Jenny McMorris, all grammar, syntax and style will be impeccable and the story poignant, impossible to forget and exceeding well told.

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on 31 August 2001
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