Peterhouse Blues

by Henry Farrell on June 1, 2008

Nearly five years ago (it’s a bit terrifying to think how long I’ve been blogging here), I wrote a “post”: on the artistic, humorous and malicious uses of book indexes. Now this bit from the _LRB_ describing Hugh Trevor Roper’s revenge on his Cambridge college.

bq. Trevor-Roper had taken the title of Lord Dacre of Glanton, and had left the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford for the mastership of Peterhouse, the oldest and most conservative college in Cambridge. His years at Peterhouse (from 1980 to 1987) were far from happy. An ultra-reactionary caucus attempted to frustrate the master’s attempts – however cautiously liberal – to reform the college. …As it happened, the doings of 17th-century Peterhouse featured in the splendid collection of essays he published in the year of his retirement, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. The index entry for ‘Cambridge Colleges, Peterhouse’ betrayed uncanny parallels, some believed, with Trevor-Roper’s perception of its members in the 1980s: ‘high-table conversation not very agreeable . . . four revolting fellows of; main source of perverts’. Just as admirers of his hero Gibbon often head straight for the footnotes, so the first port of call for connoisseurs of Trevor-Roper is the index.



Kieran 06.01.08 at 8:00 pm

I know of a group of people who used to bowl together. In the first book each one of them wrote, there is an index entry for each of the other people in the group. The page reference provided in each case is that person’s bowling average.


Ben Alpers 06.01.08 at 8:46 pm

I was once told that shortly after Trevor-Roper had been embarrassed by his incorrect authentication of the Hitler diaries, one of his Peterhouse enemies bought a dog and named it “Diaries” simply so that he could wonder around the quad yelling “Diaries! Diaries!”


Ben Alpers 06.01.08 at 8:49 pm

Shouldn’t this post be entitled “There’ll Always Be an England”?


eric 06.01.08 at 10:44 pm

I took the title to be a sly reference to Tom Sharpe’s wonderful campus novel. But perhaps I’m just imagining that.


The Modesto Kid 06.01.08 at 11:03 pm

In the life of Aamons, Mona, the index itself gave a jangling, surrealistic picture of the many conflicting forces that had been brought to bear on her and of her dismayed reactions to them.

Aamons, Mona:” the index said, “adopted by Monzano in order to boost Monzano’s popularity, 194-199, 216n.; childhood in compound of House of Hope and Mercy, 63-81; childhood romance with P. Castle, 72f; death of father, 89ff; death of mother, 92f; embarrassed by role as national erotic symbol, 80, 95f, 166n., 209, 274n., 400-406, 566n., 678; lives with Bokonon, 92-98, 196-197; poems about, 2n., 26, 114, 119, 311, 315, 477n., 501, 507, 555n.,…

I showed this index entry to the Mintons, asking them if it didn’t think it was an enchanting biography in itself, a biography of a reluctant goddess of love. I got an unexpectedly expert answer, as one does in life sometimes. It
appeared that Claire Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before… She said that indexing was athing only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book. I asked her what she thought of Philip Castle’s job.

“Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader,” she said. “In a hyphenated word,” she said with the shrewd amiability of an expert, “self-indulgent. I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work. It’s a revealing thing… a shameless exhibition — to the trained eye.”


The Modesto Kid 06.01.08 at 11:15 pm

Whatever happened to the nice Crooked Timber preview feature?


Henry 06.02.08 at 1:24 am

Yep Eric – right on target.


tom s. 06.02.08 at 2:39 am

I heard of a frustrated indexer of a long and old-fashioned legal text whose parting shot was the entry “women, total neglect of: 1-723”.


magistra 06.02.08 at 9:04 am

The one time I indexed a book (semi-professionally, I’m a trained librarian, but not indexer), I resisted the temptation to add in daft entries, but I did try and do some feminist indexing.


Tom Hurka 06.02.08 at 3:01 pm

C. D. Broad’s Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930) has entries like:

Paul, Saint; less widely appreciated than Mr. Charles Chaplin;

Hegel, G. W. F.; was a philosophical disaster;

Green, T. H.; his power of producing prigs; and

God; tentatively compared to Jeremy Bentham.

Self-indulgent, yes, but worth the price of admission.


ajay 06.02.08 at 5:11 pm

There was an obit of John Belushi that consisted entirely of his index entry in some book about Hollywood, along the lines of

Belushi, John
and amphetamines
benzedrine and

and so on for a long list of substances, and DAMMIT I wish I could find a reference. Thought it was in “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” but it wasn’t.


David 06.03.08 at 3:32 pm

In Julian Barnes’s Letters From London (which gets an honorable mention in Henry’s previous post), there’s a point in the text where he talks disobligingly about another author but declines to name him. In the index appears the entry Ian McEwan, pointing to this page, on which McEwan is otherwise not mentioned. Diligently cross-referencing readers may draw their own conclusions.

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