In 1718, when a clergyman named Laurence Echard published his 3 volume History of England, he hadn’t counted on his indexer taking issue with its politics and undermining the work with a series of subversive, occasionally sarcastic, index entries. Echard’s is a Tory version of English history (although, as Deborah Stephan has argued, by no means as hardline as it might have been), and John Oldmixon – the indexer hired by Echard’s publisher – had a long history as a radical Whig pamphleteer. So when Echard’s History reaches its third and final volume and begins to describe the late seventeenth century, it arrives at a period which is living memory for both himself and for Oldmixon, and where the facts – or the way they are presented – are still a matter of smouldering political controversy, with Echard and Oldmixon on opposite sides.
Here’s an example of the way that Echard’s text and Oldmixon’s index are badly out of step with each other. It concerns the birth, in 1685, of a baby boy to James II and his Queen. After a series of miscarriages it seemed that James was not going to produce a male heir. For many in the country this was seen as No Bad Thing since James and his Queen were Catholic, whereas James’s nephew – who stood to inherit the throne if there was no direct heir – was a protestant. Among the Whig faction, then, a convenient but rather far-fetched conspiracy theory sprang up that the baby wasn’t really the Queen’s, and therefore not a rightful heir. The baby, they said, was some other boy child smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming pan, which the royal couple would raise as their own in order to continue the Catholic dynasty. This is how Echard reports the rumour:
As to the Warming-Pan, it was reply’d […] that it had been impossible to put a new-born Child, with the After-Burden, in the narrow Compass of a Warming-Pan, without stifling it.
And here is Oldmixon’s index entry for this scene:
Warming-pan, very useful to King James’s Queen.
Echard’s text doesn’t just report but rather endorses the view that the warming-pan rumour is silly; Oldmixon’s, of course, gleefully and sarcastically repeats the gossip.
Oldmixon’s indexing job was picked up over a decade later in a furious Tory pamphlet entitled The Index-Writer (1729), exposing about half a dozen entries along these lines, and implying that there are many more. The charges against Oldmixon can’t really be denied, but there’s something rather offputting about the tone of The Index-Writer – a sustained implication that Oldmixon’s real offence is a lack of respect for his social betters – which means that I can’t help rooting for the beleaguered indexer, secretly striking out at the comfy world of Echard and his Establishment circle. Here’s a passage from the pamphlet’s second page:
when Arch-Deacon Echard had finished his 3d vol of the History of England, the Drudgery of compiling an Index, was left to one who was thought not unfit for so low an Employment as giving an alphabetical Epitome of that Volume: it was not suspected that one thus employed should be so utterly void of all shame as to pervert the meaning of his author.
The drudgery and low employment of the indexer? I’m glad he stuck it to them!