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To Whom It May Concern

For The Telegraph

There are some novelists who will tell you that it’s the characters or the plot that cause all the trouble, or the research, or the pacing, or managing point of view, or controlling tone; but you would do better not to believe them. All of these are exasperating. But the thing that really screws you up is the dedication.
The book may be good, bad or both, but once it is finished you can dodge it, stand by it, disown it, move on, say you did or didn’t mean it, point out that you made it up, insist that it has nothing to do with you or anything that has happened in the past. The dedication, on the other hand, is where you have to say exactly what you mean. The dedication is where you can balls up the rest of your life.
To whom, then? And how do you say it? It’s an almost impossible choice for, aside from the chosen one, every person you hold dear is going to be disappointed. Put it another way: writing a dedication to a novel is a bit like composing an email to your closest friends and family, explaining that you don’t like them as much as you have been pretending, hitting “send all” and cc-ing the rest of the world. Where to start?
There’s your mother – the first choice, you might think. But what about your father? Maybe both: “To my parents?” Sounds somehow adolescent, though. Better to write another book and split them up. What about your partner? Your wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend? Surely she (in this case) deserves the dedication over family members – after all, you didn’t write the book when locked in your childhood bedroom.
Hang on, though: which partner? Because, of course, you were with someone else before your current partner and for much longer – when you began the book, now you come to think of it, and your previous partner definitely helped on those early stages. She is going to be really pissed off if you dedicate it to her usurper. Though that is as nothing compared to what said usurper might feel if you dedicate it to the bitch you used to go out with.

Forget lovers, what about one of your brothers or your sisters? But which one? All of them together? Too weak, too smug. (How many books are you going to have to write in order to keep everyone happy?) Let’s sideline all family members, partners and bedfellows past or present.

What about your best friend? Not bad, but nobody is that much “better” a friend than the others – not really; different people fit into different parts of your life. How about your friends taken all together? Too general. So just mention a few by name. But who do you not mention?

How about going for something non-personal. A school or university? Teachers in general, or one teacher in particular, or maybe a regiment, or a pet, or a country, or a special place, or the queen, or the pope, or the bank manager (that bastard), or the publishers, or the booksellers or … potential readers? Yes, why not? After all, they are the ones you really want to thank. But it’s hardly very personal is it? What about future partners? Monica Bellucci?

The history of dedications is as long as the history of writing (Horace’s odes and Virgil’s Georgics were dedicated to Maecenas, a wealthy patron) and all of the above dedicatees have been tried at one time or another. What is interesting is the amount of information that there is to be gleaned about the author from his or her decision. Because – be in no doubt – he or she was careful in the deciding.

This is Geoffrey Chaucer’s curiously touching dedication to his son from A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391): “To Litel Lowis my sone…. purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.”

Here is J D Salinger dedicating Franny and Zooey (1961) to his friend and editor: “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn… lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant… to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

One way to deal with the “which woman” problem is to take a cue from Norman Mailer, who dedicated The Presidential Papers (1963) to “some ladies who have aided and impeded the author in his composition”. (Another solution is to dedicate your work to your pipe – as Jerome K Jerome did in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886.)

The more a person writes, the greater the opportunity for flexibility: Agatha Christie dedicated her first novel to her mother, her second, “To all those who lead monotonous lives”, and her third to two friends “with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder”.

In the past, however, the dedicatee was more likely to be a monarch or a patron. The dedication to the patron, in particular, is responsible for some of the most oleaginous writing ever committed to paper. You may have come across the kind of thing: “To the most Luminous, Beautiful, and Accomplished Lady Purse-Strings, Meritoriously Dignified with all the titles Religion, Vertue, Honour, Beautie might bestow, without Worthinesse on the part of the Author, the following few unfit Lines are offered.” Men whose lives were devoted to the refinement of words were reduced to unctuous panegyric.

This was as nothing compared to the dedications to kings and queens. As ever, it took Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding to rescue us: “To His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” is the dedicatee of A Tale of a Tub (1704), while Tom Jones (1749) is dedicated to George Lyttleton Esquire “notwithstanding” his “constant refusal” to accept the dedication.

Meanwhile, there is the long tradition of beloved pets. Colonel Buchanan dedicated Sahara (1926) to “Feri n’Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart”. And here’s Larry McMurtry – grappling with split loyalties perhaps – “For Leslie, for the use of her goat.” (The Desert Rose, 1983).

These examples illustrate another problem: should a dedication be “for” or “to”? “For” implies the work was undertaken specifically as a gift for the dedicatee; while “to” implies the work is being addressed to the dedicatee – much as you might traditionally address a letter or a poem. Modern writers might consider that “dedicate” derives not from the Latin dare (“to give”, with dedi as past tense), but from a form of dicere – “to speak”.

The dedication – in exceptional circumstances – can also cause public ructions. Probably the most famous dedication of all is that inscribed by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS, MR. W.H.” Was Mr W H the “fair young man” of the sonnets? William Herbert, perhaps, who became the Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley to whom Shakespeare wrote dedicatory letters? Was Shakespeare gay? Or was Mr W H the “begetter” merely the “getter”, the man who procured the sonnets for Thorpe’s publication – one of Thorpe’s mates?

A respectable second in the ructions stakes is the dedication to William Thackeray, which appeared in the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847). Charlotte Brontë must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like her fictional Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn’t helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. Needless to say, sections of the press were not slow in imagining that “Currer Bell” had worked for Thackeray and the two were lovers.

Those determined to avoid lovers, family, pets or patrons usually find themselves turning to the reader. Ben Jonson, sick of the persistent idiocy of critics, dedicated his play The New Inn (1629) to his audience. In more modern times, Robert Beckman has updated the spirit of this approach with his excellent “to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books”.

The dedication which negotiates the whole thing most eloquently is that written by William Hogarth in 1753. It took him so long that he never finished the work for which it was intended: “The No-Dedication, not dedicated to any prince in Christendom, for fear it might be thought an idle piece of arrogance, nor dedicated to any man of quality for fear that it might be thought too assuming, not dedicated to any learned body of men, as either of the Universities or the Royal Society, for fear that it might be thought an uncommon piece of vanity, not dedicated to any one particular friend, for fear of offending another; therefore dedicated to nobody; but if for once we may suppose nobody to be everybody, as everybody is often said to be nobody, then this work is dedicated to everybody. By their humble and devoted, William Hogarth.”