The tricky art of the book dedication

Friendships and indeed marriages have no doubt hinged on the sparse words that appear on the page set aside for them before the reader proceeds to the tale proper

 

Those few little words at the front of a book that tell us to whom the author is offering this latest, finally finished opus are tricky things. They can tell, or hide, a lot. My guess is that writers often agonise over them; friendships and indeed marriages have no doubt hinged on the sparse words that appear on the page set aside for them before the reader proceeds to the tale proper.

The best dedications are in themselves moving, thought-provoking or entertaining. When I first read JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey I was charmed by his entreaty to his “editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend”, William Shawn, of the New Yorker, to accept this “pretty skimpy-looking book”, the offer made “as nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean.”

Then there’s Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s lovely ramble at the front of The Little Prince: “To Leon Worth. I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children – although few of them remember it. And so I correct my dedication:

To Leon Werth

When he was a little boy.”

Shorter, but no less moving, is Toni Morrison’s dedication of Beloved, her novel about a fugitive slave, to “Sixty million and more”.

Sometimes dedications are used to settle scores. Tobias Wolff wrote in the acknowledgments in This Boy’s Life, the damning story of his upbringing with an abusive stepfather: “My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.”

Meanwhile, ee cummings prefaced a collection of poems with “NO THANKS TO”, followed by the names of 14 publishers that had rejected his work – in the shape of a funeral urn.

Some are blatantly political. Edmund Spenser in 1590 published his long poem The Faerie Queen (which he wrote, or at least finished, at his home in Kilcolman, Co Cork). He dedicated it to “the most high, mighty, and magnificent Empress, renowned for piety, virtue and all gracious government”, and on and on for ages in the same vein – sucking up on a grand scale. And it worked. Elizabeth I then gave Spenser a pension of £50 a year – a fair fortune back then.

Some people are serial romantic dedicators, such as Brian Moore (For Jean, comme d’habitude”) and F Scott FitzGerald (“Once Again to Zelda”). But what if you romantically dedicate your work to your significant other only to find out – just too late to change it before publication – that they have been carrying on with your best friend for years? That declaration is there for good – or at least for the first edition.

Even simple inscriptions can be landmines waiting to explode. A friend knows a poet who once came across a copy of one of his own collections in a charity shop. Intrigued about how it got there, he opened it and found the inscription in his own handwriting: “To Mum and Dad – thank you for everything.”

Some writers sidestep potential dangers by not dedicating their books to anyone, so their loved ones are, presumably, all miffed in equal measure. But Elizabeth Rees-Williams, who was married to Richard Harris and, subsequently, Rex Harrison, gets the top prize for diplomacy. She dedicated her autobiography to “RH”.

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