Books Podcast: The Joy of Indexes

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of a conversation with Sam Leith, Honorary President of the Society of Indexers. Sam also happens to be Literary Editor at The Spectator, so our chat was recorded for their Books Podcast. It’s online here.


“Like the Learned Pig”: Virginia Woolf’s First Index

“If you had come in yesterday you would have seen me with the floor all strewn with little squares of paper, like the learned pig, making an index for Viola.”
Letter to Vita Sackville-West, 29 March 1926

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here) about the index Virginia Woolf prepared for Orlando, but I hadn’t realised till the other day that this wasn’t her first index. (Nor would it be her last.)

In 1917, Woolf and her husband Leonard bought themselves a printing press. Over the next few years the Hogarth Press would grow from being a hobby – with Virginia setting the type while Leonard operated the press – into a substantial publishing operation, producing dozens of books a year, and with most of the printing being done offsite. The growth of the Hogarth Press meant that, along with their own writing and the literary and critical output of their friends, the Woolfs began to publish longer works of prose non-fiction, one such work being Castles in the Air (1926), the memoirs of the actress and singer Viola Tree.

Viola Tree (1907), by John Singer Sargent
Viola Tree (1907), by John Singer Sargent

And so it was that Woolf should find herself surrounded by indexing slips bearing the names of Lord and Lady Asquith, Winston Churchill and all the other socialites namedropped in Tree’s effervescent life story.

The index which Woolf prepared is fairly straightforward – its only real shock is the entry, “Crippen, Hawley Harvey, murder by, 41, 42,” appearing bluntly among the actresses and landed gentry. What is most fascinating about the Castles in the Air index is how closely it resembles the spoof index for Orlando which Woolf created the following year. It is almost identical in both length – two pages of double columns – and style: the Castles in the Air index lists only proper names, and aside from Dr Crippen and Viola Tree herself, none of the other people listed is allowed any subheadings (other than the cursory “letter from”). So for example, we get long, unhelpful lists of undifferentiated locators such as:

Asquith, H. H. (Lord Oxford), 42, 80, 139, 140, 183, 283; letters from, 159 ff., 161, 162 ff., 165, 166, 168, 172 ff., 174, 185 ff. 190, 194, 204, 213, 225 ff. 239, 252, 285, 291, 300; telegram from, 188.

But when it comes to Tree herself, Woolf provides a running narrative, where every locator receives a description:

Tree, Viola, leaves stage, 11; studies music, 12; engaged to A. P. 13; goes to Milan, 15; at Milan, 18 ff., sings to Ricordi, 23; life at Milan, 27 ff.; in her own house at Milan, 53-90; visit to Strauss, 115 ff.; returns to England, 138; summer in England, 159; returns to Italy, 181; Christmas in England, 224; returns to Italy, 233; engagement to A. P. announced, 257; marriage, 290.

This is Tree’s memoir in miniature – a potted biography, by way of index. And presumably this is where Woolf learned the lesson she would put into practice with Orlando: that an index entry can function as a narrative, and that she might have some fun with this.

The Tree index has no run-ons – in other words, terms are repeated in full from one subhead to the next: “goes to Milan; at Milan”. But one of the jokes about Orlando‘s index is the way it breaks down this notion that each subhead must be a discrete entity. Woolf uses “and” so that the sense of narrative is made explicit:

his romantic dramas, literary ambitions, 48, 50-2, 63-6; and Greene, 53, 57, 59;


entertains the wits, 129; and Mr Pope, 132; and Nell, 135.

It’s a lovely piece of wit, completely of a part with Orlando‘s narrative restlessness. It’s rather lovely too to imagine that the joke first came to Woolf on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting on the floor of Tavistock Square amidst a mess of indexing slips which told, in abbreviated form, the glittering life of Viola Tree.

(Woolf’s other index was for Roger Fry: A Biography, the last of her works to be published during her lifetime. While her first two indexes seem to have provided Woolf with some amusement, this last was an unrewarding effort. Her diary entry for 11 June 1940 records her “working till eyes blind at Index”. Two days later she writes: “My Index sent off – so thats the very final full stop to all that drudgery.”)

Pointless Arrows

Following on from yesterday’s blogpost on the illustrated table to Frarin’s Oration, I wanted to mention briefly another visual index, this time from a contemporary book. The book is The Gorgeous Nothings, Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s ‘envelope poems’.


The envelope poems are a trove of scraps – envelopes and parts of envelopes – on which Dickinson composed fragmentary poetry. Werner and Bervin’s edition reproduces the envelopes themselves, and alongside them includes transcriptions of the text.

It’s an absolutely beautiful edition, but what I love most about it is Bervin’s ‘Visual Index’. Rather than indexing the poems by their textual content, Bervin arranges the material by various other means:

  • Index of Envelopes by Page Shape
  • Index of Envelopes by Addressee
  • Index of Envelopes with Columns
  • Index of Envelopes with Pencilled Divisions
  • Index of Envelopes with Multidirectional Text
  • Index of Envelopes Turned Diagonally
  • Index of Envelopes with Cancelled or Erased Text
  • Index of Envelopes with Variants


Many envelopes appear in several different indexes, but as you can see from the titles, each index explicitly concerns itself with the envelopes rather than the poems: their shape, their orientation, who they’re addressed to, etc. Like the Auden & Garrett anthology, this is the index-as-argument again: an index designed to tell us how we should think about the book. It instructs us that the envelope poems are material texts rather than poems-in-the-abstract. So if you’re looking for that poem about Hair or Mushrooms then you’re on your own – good luck with that. But if you’re looking for the poem written diagonally on an arrow-shaped envelope, then that’ll be A364 (‘Summer laid her simple Hat’).


Personally, I’m not a very visual thinker – I don’t think this index will ever be a useful finding aid for me, and I’m not sure it would be for anyone (‘Pointless Arrows’ – one of Bervin’s categories of envelope shape – would be a good name for the locators here). But that’s rather missing the point. With the ‘Visual Index’, Bervin has come up with a wonderful, impish way to make a serious argument about what Dickinson’s envelope poems are, about their materiality, and their resistance to being reduced to mere text.

For Him that Cannot Reade: The Index as Graphic Novel

In early 1566, Peter Frarin’s Oration Against the Unlawfull Insurrections of the Protestantes began to circulate in its English translation, printed in Antwerp. Frarin’s text is standard religious polemic – nothing particularly surprising – until we come to the back of the book. There we find a rather extraordinary innovation.

Peter Frarin, Oration Against the Unlawfull Insurrections of the Protestantes (Antwerp, 1566) [Oxford, Bodleian, Wood 800(3)]

The Table of this Booke set ovt not by order of Alphabete or numbre, but by expresse figure, to the eye & sight of the Christian Reader, and of him also that cannot reade.

Instead of keywords or chapter epitomes, then, the book’s table contains a series of woodcuts illustrating the key sections of the main text. It is a functioning table of contents – the woodcuts have locators beneath them, and if we follow the link from the above image to leaf B iiii, sure enough we find that this illustration is depicting a Protestant riot in Paris:

Oute with thy sword for the Gospell, sayeth the new Gospeller. There was a Companie of desperat & wicked personnes that ran lyke mad men up and down the streates of Paris with glistering naked swordes in theyr handes, and cried out, the Gospel, the Gospell: when they meant nothing els, but to bring a sort of cursed Sectes and wicked Heresies into the Realme.

And we can tell that the Table really was used as a table of contents because one of the copies in the Bodleian has been marked up by a reader, adding extra locators underneath the woodcuts. The Oration was printed without page numbers, and the printed table was instead keyed to the page signatures – marks primarily for the bookbinder’s use. This is not uncommon in early printed books, as I’ve noted in an earlier blog, but by 1566 page sigs are a rather old fashioned locator to use. So this reader has inserted their own page numbers in the corners of the pages, then added numerical locators, replacing the alphanumerical sig marks, to the table.


There are even manicules on the relevant pages pointing to the indexed passage.


So the visual table really did function as a table of contents, at least for the owner of Wood 800(3). But let’s pause here. The Table announces that its illustrations are intended for the benefit of illiterate people. But for ‘him that cannot reade’, the main text, of course, will be meaningless. Those locators are no use at all: the table needs to stand alone. Added to that, the table does not in fact contain only those ‘expresse figures’, the images. Instead, each woodcut is accompanied by a short scurrilous verse, like this rather magnificent couplet:


Calvin in his chamber fiue yeres taught a Nonne
Tyll she was great with Gospell and swolne with a Sonne

So the table is really two things at once, or rather it is designed to function within two different modes of reading. On the one hand, as a true table of contents, designed to support extract reading. But the table is also intended to be something else entirely: not an index but an adaptation, distilling the main text into something like graphic novel form: a version of Frarin’s Oration to be read sequentially by illiterate readers using only the images, or literate ones able to enjoy the satirical interplay of image and doggerel.

The Book Index: A Two-Day Symposium

The Book Index
Bodleian Library, Oxford
22-23 June, 2017

Keynotes: Professor Ann Blair (Harvard); Professor Emily Steiner (UPenn)

‘I for my part venerate the inventor of Indexes, […] that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book.’
Isaac Disraeli, Literary Miscellanies

Now that much of our reading activity begins with the Results page of a Google search, this two-day symposium will take a timely opportunity to consider how the index – the foremost finding aid of the physical book – shaped reading and scholarly method over the last eight hundred years. An academic enabler, allowing readers to synthesise texts on a scale that had previously been impossible? A prop for fakers and the lazy – see Pope’s ‘index-learning turns no student pale’? What has the index offered readers, and what can indexes – both published and reader-created – tell us about the ways that a book has been consumed?

Subjects might include, but are not limited to:

  • the emergence of the index and its refinement over time
  • indexes and genre
  • ‘indexical reading’ and ‘index scholarship’
  • reader indexes: handwritten indexes to printed books
  • the index and ‘extract reading’: commonplacing, anthologising
  • the indexer, their place in the publishing foodchain
  • the grammar of the index
  • the emergence of indexing societies and agencies
  • indexing and the novel
  • indexing technology – from slips to punchcards to hyperlinks
  • the index and the eBook

Please send proposals (250 words) for papers of twenty minutes, along with a short biographical note to Dr Dennis Duncan ( by 30 November, 2016.

See for more information as it is available.