The Conscientious Objector’s Wife edited by Kate Macdonald

About this book
The Conscientious Objector’s Wife (Handheld Press, 2018) is an edited collection of the letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, a working-class couple from Letchworth in Hertfordshire.  Frank was imprisoned in 1916 when conscription was extended to include men of his age.  As an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector, he refused both to serve in the Army and to undertake alternative service – agricultural labour, hospital or clerical work, or in industry – on the grounds that it would commit another man to military service.  Frank remained in prison until 1919 and the letters between the couple give a remarkable insight into working-class lives during the First World War.
Frank and Lucy are socialists, keen self-improvers and autodidacts, attracted to self-sufficiency, feminism and vegetarianism.  In Letchworth, with its large population of Quakers, free-thinkers and left-wingers, they found a supportive community that would help Lucy hugely throughout Frank’s imprisonment. This support was vital, as she took over Frank’s work as an insurance agent to keep up the family’s income, as well as doing sewing work, running her home and caring for her three young children.  Lucy’s letters give a vivid picture of domestic life during wartime: the gradual increase of rationing and shortages; the impact of refugees and the war industry  – Letchworth accommodated many Belgian refugees and was also a centre for munitions work;  and of the struggle to maintain a happy home.  Frank’s letters, often mindful of the eyes of the censor, can be more abstract and say relatively little about the material conditions in prison, but are greatly revealing of the psychological costs of his long imprisonment.  Both Frank and Lucy are entirely committed to pacifist principles and their mutual commitment to this and to each other is a very moving theme of the book.  They are both good writers: Frank can be very funny although some of his jokes need work, and Lucy’s escape for a few months to rural Devon is captured in bursts of rather lyrical nature writing that express her relief at being away in the country and the restorative effect it has.  The final chapter, when the war has ended but Frank remains in prison (an additional, punitive government policy to ensure released COs did not get the pick of post-war jobs) was very tense: would he ever get home?
The letters have been published by Handheld Press, and edited by the Press’s Director, Kate Macdonald. Kate is a scholar of literature and history who has written extensively about the First World War, and provides an extremely useful introduction setting out the context of these letters and giving background information about Frank and Lucy.
Approaching the index
Collected letters can be challenging to index.  There is no particular structure – this book is arranged into chapters, but they are used to break the letters up chronologically.  Content and subjects can be highly diverse.  There is no particular organised narrative, and the letters themselves may well include obscure references or be highly allusive.  This problem is intensified because these particular letters were subject to censor scrutiny; Frank often includes in his letters a phrase like “You understand why I cannot write more about this”, indicating both his awareness of the censor and the elision of more explicit writing.
Having read the book and made a rather complicated mind-map, I also read Marian Aird’s very useful account of her work on the Britten-Pears correspondence (‘”Your letters have been life and breath to me’: the challenge of indexing My beloved man’, The Indexer 34:4, 2016 pp138-143, subscription/fee required), Douglas Matthews’s ‘Indexing Published Letters’ (The Indexer 22.3, 2001 pp135-141, free to access) and Hazel Bell’s Indexing Biographies (Society of Indexers, 2004)  which includes some guidance on letters.  Kate Macdonald’s introduction to the letters draws out key themes, and the marketing material for the book was very useful in terms of thinking of likely readers: local historians, family historians, historians of the First World War, people interested in Quakers and non-conformist religions, historians of working-class lives.  I also bore in mind histories of the emotions (like Clare Langhamer’s work on love) and the current cultural interest in accounts of the everyday; while Lucy’s circumstances are unusual, she still has the daily round of working, shopping, cooking and dealing with domestic irritants like a blocked drain.
Writing the index
The names and personal information were the principal challenges of this index.  Because of the likely users of the book, and mindful of Marian Aird’s advice on names, I decided that all full personal names would be indexed, and that all significant mentions of placenames would also be included.  Some names presented difficulty in terms of distinguishing who was being discussed.  I had rather an ordeal with the Palmer family, who appear frequently in the letters but are often described only as Mr Palmer.  Working out which Mr Palmer was meant required a careful reading of the text.  I included some people who were only mentioned by first name where they were significant players in the narrative, for example Lucy’s Belgian lodger Leonie, whose surname is never mentioned.  The footnotes were helpful in distinguishing identities when the letters, naturally, use only first names; I included locators for the notes to ensure the additional information here was accessible to the index user.
I wanted to make full, detailed entries for both Frank and Lucy, but these could not easily take the form of similar entries in a biography, because so much of the detail was missing.  For Lucy, for example, the letters contain lot of short but significant references to aspects of her life such as her work with the Letchworth Adult School.  I realised early on that I would need sub-subheadings to give enough detail and make the index useable, but there were, inevitably, still some long strings.  I wanted to make sure that all her visits to Frank were indexed, for example, so a long string of undifferentiated locators followed that particular subheading.  I could have broken these up a little with details of the locations of the prisons – Frank was held in a number of different places – but I wasn’t convinced that would add a lot of value.  The long string shows how often, throughout their separation, Lucy found time to visit Frank in prison. Emotions, ideas, religion and political opinions also found a place as subheadings for both Frank and Lucy’s index entries.
Health and illness were a frequent topic of discussion in the letters.  Frank, Lucy and all the children had a subheading for this topic, with sub-subheadings to collect locators on the nature of their illnesses.  I also included a main heading for health and illness, with specific illnesses included as subheadings.  A few specific illnesses – like the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 – had such extensive discussion that I included them as main headings in their own right.
As an indexer I have to guard against my tendency to categorise and classify, rather than presenting headings in a more direct form.  Prisons and religions were categories occupying a lot of space in the index.  Each prison and religion mentioned had its own main heading, but I also had a main heading for “prison” that included subheadings for individual prisons as well as categories such as food, visiting and sentences.  After a lot of thought, I decided against this approach for religion, mainly for reasons of space; instead, I made use of see also references to connect various religious topics together.
Term selection for some concepts was a challenge.  For both Lucy and Frank, the beauty of the natural world was central to their sense of well-being, and both write about this a lot, most likely as a way to bring some joy and happiness to each other in their difficult circumstances;  Lucy’s letters from Barnstaple overflow with her pleasure at the lovely countryside and the sea.  This is a significant subject in the book, but I worked for a while on the best way to express this in index headings.  I ended up with main headings for birdsong, flowers, landscape, the sea and walking, which were then double-entered as subheadings under the main heading “nature and environment”.  I also used “nature and environment, importance of” as a subheading for each of Lucy and Frank’s main headings.
Lessons learned
I enjoyed working on this book immensely, despite its challenges – it’s extremely interesting, entertaining and moving, and indexing is such a good way to get under the skin of a book you really like.  It was also definitely useful in developing my indexing skills, particularly in constructing a useful index out of a text with such diverse contents, characters and themes, and without the usual overarching argument of a non-fiction book.  I also made use of the Sky acronyms function for the first time, to help me deal with all the various similar names, and the Megabit Macros were invaluable when dealing with the huge range of personal names in the text.

Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Last month I was lucky enough to visit the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Even on a cold Thursday afternoon in January, the Gallery was crowded, which gives some idea of the extraordinary popularity of this artist and writer.  Anyone who loved the Moomins in childhood would probably be drawn to an exhibition of her work; the current British fashion and fascination for all things Scandinavian is probably expanding her audience.  Ethnically and linguistically Swedish, but born and raised in Finland, Jansson is positioned interestingly on the borders of Scandanavia – but her work and writing definitely speaks to us of her origins in the far north.

Tove Jansson, Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait), 1974. From, © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson was an extraordinarily wide-ranging artist, producing works in oils, illustrations, the vast world of Moomin in both book and comic-strip form,  novels and short stories.  The exhibition started with her early works in oils, including a number of self-portraits and the famous, uneasy portrait of her whole family together, Tove poised in black at the centre of the group.   A room of paintings from her later career followed, including some beautiful interiors which have affinities with the work of Vanessa Bell, also shown at Dulwich in 2017.  My favourite piece in this room was a semi-abstract seascape called “Westering”, haunting and beautiful.  Her  paintings strongly evoke dynamic motion and have a great deal of texture.   In a still life of vegetables (fennel and onions) the tension between straight lines and curves gives these everyday objects a considerable dramatic quality.  These paintings are quite large in scale, and the contrast with the next room was marked.

This  room was devoted to Jansson’s illustrations for the work of other authors, particularly Alice in Wonderland and Tolkein’s The Hobbit.  Her drawings for Alice, for those of us brought up on Tenniel’s upright black-and-white drawings, are revelatory, composed mainly of sinuous curves. The Mad Hatter is a relaxed, possibly slightly drunk figure, leaning companionably on the Dormouse; Alice swirls in spirals in the Pool of Tears.   These works are quite tiny and precise in their execution, the opposite of abstraction.

Tove Jansson, the Moomin family. © Moomin Characters™

Finally, the Moomins made their appearance. A room of sketches, showing how Jansson reworked little scenes again and again to get them right, made me think of the effort involved in this work.  Jansson has incredible economy in her drawings, with just a few lines deployed to set a scene, show character, or tell a story.  It was fascinating to see the notebook stage of the familiar drawings, and delightful to see the original set of Moomin figurines, developed in the sixties to satisfy the demands of Moomin-fans worldwide.  The final room was dedicated to the comic strip Moomins – again, requiring massive work (which was taken over by Tove’s brother, interestingly, when she could no longer keep up with demand) and their excursions into other cultural forms.  There were posters for Moomin plays, operas and exhibitions.

As well as her visual art, Tove Jansson wrote many books for an adult readership.  These have been issued in English translations by Sort Of Books over the last few years  in beautiful editions, and are hugely enjoyable to read.  Her writing is spare,  leaving space for the reader’s imagination; I always feel that she’s conveying, subtly and insinuatingly, a profound wisdom about what is worthwhile in life.  The Summer Book is probably her best-known work, but my favourite is Fair Play. This draws on her own life with her partner, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä; the couple in the novel mimic the real-life arrangement where they had flats next door to each other, connected by a neutral attic space, both together and apart.  Fair Play shows how two women can combine separate creative careers with a supportive and loving relationship.  Jansson’s marvellous portrait of Tuulikki working at her desk appeared in the exhibition but I can’t find it online in usable form. Instead, here’s a photograph of them together.

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Tuulikki and Tove (on the right). Tove Jansson looks incredibly cheeky in nearly every photo of her.
The Dulwich exhibition is now over; there are some lovely reviews of it (with more pictures) at The Londonist and Plain.  If you are interested in finding out more about Jansson, there is an authorised biography by Boel Westin which I enjoyed, although it is not written as a traditional biographical narrative, and jumps about a lot between the phases of Jansson’s life.  There’s a good review of  Westin’s book by Kate Macdonald if you want to find out more before starting. This illustrated biography looks fascinating and has gone on my wish list. There are lots of pictures to enjoy at and – the latter has an online shop for all your Moomin needs.  Dulwich Picture Gallery is a delightful place and well worth a visit – they have excellent exhibitions and the main collection is also marvellous.

Mapping the Heavens by Peter Whitfield

About this book
Peter Whitfield’s Mapping the Heavens (British Library, 2018) is a heavily illustrated guide to the history of astronomical mapping.  It’s 183 pages long and around 50,000 words in total.  I was asked to produce a single name and subject index of around 600 lines in a three-column layout, with run-on subheadings.  The book covers astronomical mapping from its earliest notions in prehistory to present-day astrophysics, but from a historical rather than a technical viewpoint; it is intended to be accessible to the general reader.  Although the main subject of the book is very specific, this book has great breadth and depth, ranging from stone circles to photographs from interplanetary probes, and taking in most of western European art on the way.   The importance of astronomy to religious practice – particularly in respect of measuring time and establishing calendars – was also a key theme of the book, as was the interrelationship of astronomy and astrology until relatively recently in the history of the science.  I’m unreasonably fond of maps and quite fond of astronomy, so was very pleased to get this commission.
Approaching the index
In practical terms, I was glad to be able to get a printout of this book from the publisher – it’s a largish format book with lots of illustrations and it was really helpful to be able to read through and mark up the paper copy.  Doing this work on my lap, rather than a table, was a mistake though and generated various aches and pains.   I am not a scientist, so I did a bit of preliminary work on the internet brushing up my understanding of astronomical terms.  Having read through the book, I developed a mind-map of the key themes and sub-themes, and their relationship to each other – here’s a photo.  The colour-coding helped identify thematic links and overlaps.
Mindmap for the index of Mapping the Heavens.
Mindful of my experience with Captain Cook, I made use of Ann Hudson’s formula for calculating how many entries I’d need on a page, on average, to achieve an index of this length, hoping not to have to reduce the total number of entries hugely after I’d finished.
A key challenge was ensuring that I’d properly understood the relationship between certain technical terms, and using dictionaries and the internet to help understand these terms and how they should relate to each other in the index.  For example, the terms brightness, luminosity and magnitude were all used in relation to the light of stars.  Investigations showed that brightness can refer to stellar magnitude (ie how bright a star appears) and also to luminosity (how bright a star appears in a certain spectrum) I thought brightness might well be a sought term for the non-expert reader so included it with see references to luminosity and to magnitude, stellar.  Magnitude and luminosity were also included as subheadings under stars.
As well as technical terminology, I had some problems with synonymous terms.  Star maps and star charts were used fairly interchangeably in the book to refer to the same thing, although sometimes they were used to distinguish between the geometric, astronomical plotting of star positions in two dimensions, and the pictorial, astrological images of the starry sphere.  There was obviously no point in having two separate headings for star maps and star charts, especially as they would be so close to each other as index entries, so eventually I hedged my bets with the main heading star charts/maps.
The breadth of content, given the apparently focused main topic, meant that I had a lot of entries.   The book makes reference to religion and theology, mathematics and geometry, artistic methods and materials, and the history of publishing, as well as giving accounts of the development of astrology and astronomy.  Possibly inevitably, I had to cut down the length of the index during the editing phase.  I had entered more subheadings at the first entry stage than I had done for previous books;  for a number of headings, I was able to save space by removing the subheadings where the total number of locators allowed.
The interrelations of the sub-themes of the book lead to a lot of double entry to avoid too many see references.  This made the index longer but, I think, probably more usable.  Trying to balance including a greater range of sought terms against the improved usability of double entry was quite difficult for this book.
There were a lot of unfamiliar names in this book, and I made heavy use of cutting and pasting to enter them, and did a great deal of careful checking at the editing stage.
Mainly, this book was extremely lovely to look at and a clear, informative account of how and why we have attempted to model the stars and planets over the years.  I learned a lot about astronomy and cartography, and their interaction with the worlds of art, religion and commerce.
I made use of Sky’s labelling systems again and used them to flag illustrations, queries and headings that I thought might not be needed.  I also worked out how to use the filtering system to exclude that last group from the final index, without having to save a copy first and then delete them all, which made life much easier.
Lessons learned
I’m still making too many entries at the first stage, although this is probably better than too few, but at the edit stage there were quite a few headings that seemed very unlikely sought terms.  I also need to think at the term selection stage about how much of my index to devote to double entry of terms, rather than including a wider range of headings.  I also need to do more playing with Sky and see what else it can help me do.

James Cook: The Voyages by William Frame with Laura Walker

About this book

In 2018, it will be 250 years since James Cook set out for the South Pacific on the Endeavour.  To celebrate this anniversary, there will be an exhibition at the British Library from April to August next year, drawing on the Library’s remarkable collection of maps, diaries, paintings and drawings to tell the story of Cook’s voyages.  As well as maps and diaries prepared by the British sailors, scientists and artists, the exhibition will show works by the Tahitian navigiator Tupaia, who travelled with Cook to New Zealand and Australia.  A fascinating exhibition catalogue has been prepared, which foregrounds the work of Tupaia and considers the colonising impact of Cook’s voyages; ostensibly, the first voyage had a scientific purpose (to observe the transit of Venus), but private instructions from the Admiralty gave Cook the additional mission of acquiring new territories for the British Empire.  The catalogue discusses the colonising motives underpinning the voyages, and the impact of the British visitors on Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Hawai’i.  The catalogue has around 200 illustrated pages and is roughly 50,000 words long.  I was asked to provide a name index that included the illustrations and was 600-650 lines long.  The authors and publishers were keen that the careful research done on the names of the indigenous people of the countries Cook visited was reflected in the text.

Approaching the index

I didn’t ask for a printout of this book, and read the PDF on my laptop.  In retrospect, that was a mistake, as this is a larger format book and it wasn’t all that easy to read.  I marked up the PDF using a larger monitor, which was easier.  Again, I made a mind map of the categories of people, places and things with names, to help me select my terms.  I also did some thinking about how to deal with indigenous names, English transliterations, and places that had or still have two names commonly used.  After some email discussion with the publisher, I decided on the following approaches:

  • for indigenous names of people, I would use the correct spelling as specified in the text as the preferred term.  If  incorrect English versions or transcriptions appeared frequently in the book, I would include a ‘see’ reference to the correct version, rather than double entry.  This avoided effacing the correct spelling or transliteration with the English colonial versions.   I also added misspellings that occurred frequently in the text as qualifiers.
  • for placenames, where both English and indigenous names were used in the text and are currently in use,  I would use double entry under both forms, with the other name included as a qualifier at each entry
  • for placenames where the English name is no longer used, I would use a see reference

I also did some preparatory reading on Maori names, which was helpful – the Indexer Centrepieces on names were invaluable here.


Placenames probably gave me the most trouble in this index.  I ended up doing a lot of research to see if both local and English names were still in use, in order to make a decision about whether to use both names in the index.  I also spent a lot of time with an atlas open at the Pacific page, trying to get my head around the shape of Cook’s voyages.

The double entry approach gave me most difficulty in the entry on New Zealand.  There were Maori and English names for most of the places mentioned.    The general entry on New Zealand had a lot of locators, and needed subheadings.  Should I, for example, include both North Island and Te Ika a Maui, its Maori name, as subheadings, duplicating the locators each time?  In the end, this is what I did, to ensure the index user would find the information whichever name they used.

All names needed careful transcription and checking.  I cut and pasted the most challenging names, and checked them all thoroughly. There were some diacritical marks that Sky didn’t seem to want to handle, so I also needed to put those in manually at the end, once I had the index in .rtf form.

Some people – Cook himself, but also Joseph Banks and several of the artists who travelled on the voyages – had a lot of meaningful entries.  This led to long strings; in a name index, I wasn’t quite sure how to break them up.  In the end, for the majority of these, I used placenames as a subheading, reasoning that the entry for the artist Sydney Parkinson, for example, would be easier to use if locators about his travels and his work was linked to particular places.  For Cook himself, I cheated a bit and put in some biographical subject subheadings; there were lots of locators referring to his death, for example, so I included a subheading for that.

Clarifying what all these names were gave me pause for thought, too.  For ship names, Michael Forder’s Indexer Centerpiece on military indexing was very helpful.  I started off with placeholder text to distinguish people, places, and gods.  I swithered about keeping these in as qualifiers, but eventually removed them because they made the index look very cluttered.  Also, if you are looking for Purea in this index, you probably know she is a Tahitian chief and not a mountain or a lake.


The structure of the book made it very easy to point the user at significant mentions, which I highlighted with bold locators.  Key people and places had short chapters devoted to them which included useful summary information. There was very little repetition despite the complex narrative of journeys and so many characters moving in and out of the story.

I also enjoyed getting to grips with some of Sky’s useful features.  I’d used labels before, but for this book I used them to flag illustrations – very helpful for a final check on illustration locators at the end – and to label the different nationalities of each name.  I also discovered the marvellous Propagate Edits tool, which helped me get rid of lots of placeholder notes while editing.

Mainly, though, the pleasures of indexing this book were in its beauty – the illustrations really are wonderful – and its insightful examination of Cook’s journeys.  I learned a great deal.

Lessons learned

It was worth putting in the efforts to work out a strategy for dealing with the indexing of names at the start; this supported my decision-making later on, although I did have to think about whether and how to break my self-imposed rules.  I did slightly better at anticipating the long strings of locators for this book, but there was still a lot of reworking of this at the editing stage.  I also made too many entries, and had to cut down significantly to fit in with the line limit.  I need to think more about how to avoid this – I had a rough target per page, but pages with several illustrations invariably pushed me over that.

For Better, For Worse: Marriage in Victorian Novels by Women

About this book

For Better, For Worse: Marriage in Victorian Novels by Women (edited by Carolyn Lambert and Marion Shaw) is a multi-authored edited collection of chapters on the theme of marriage in fiction by 19th century women writers.  The range of authors covered is quite broad, from the well-known such as George Eliot, through sensation writers like Ellen Wood and Florence Marryat to writers entirely new to me, such as Mary Eliza Haweis.  There is also quite a lot of breadth in terms of historical context (the 19th century is long) and literary form.  The book has just over 200 indexable pages and I was asked to provide an index that would fit, in two columns, on eight pages.

Approaching the index

After my first read of the text, and drawing on Margie Towery’s article “Metatopic and structure” in The Indexer 35: 2 June 2017, pp72-4, I made a mind map of the themes of the book. This helped me sort out the metatopic – representations of marriage in key concepts and types of information held within the book, and the links between them.  I then made a list of the main keywords for the book to keep in mind as I worked through the text.  I also found Kate Mertes’ discussion of the Ur-topic helpful, mainly to remind me that in a library, this book would be shelved with critical work on English literature of the 19th century.  There’s a lot of useful and interesting sociohistorical content in the book, but the index needed to reflect its literary meaning too.  I did a chapter edit and check of locators at the end of each chapter.


Given the large number of authors, I anticipated some difficulties with terminology, but actually key terms in the text – marriages, wives, husbands, infidelity – were fairly consistently applied.  I had some difficulty with indexing terms relating to violence and abuse.  There was much less consistency here, partly I think due to stylistic choices: an author who had used the dryer legal term “marital violence” might change to “wife-beating” in order to heighten the impact of a sentence.  To manage this, I made extensive use of double entry and some see cross-references.

I also came across a few topics where we don’t have a good and likely sought term.  For example, a number of chapters discussed the options for women who chose not to marry.  Some of these references could be included under the heading “spinsters”, but not all were appropriate. There isn’t really an antonym for marriage in English that works as a search term:  I used “alternatives to marriage” as a heading, and also included “alternatives” as a subheading to the main heading on “marriage”.

Names, as ever, needed work.  A lot of nineteenth-century women published under pseudonyms, or are now known, at least in critical works, but a name they did not publish under.  George Eliot is well-known and was easily dealt with.  The writer now usually called Ellen Wood published under the name Mrs Henry Wood.  Margaret Oliphant normally published as Mrs Oliphant, and her full name was actually Margaret Oliphant Oliphant.  All of this needed thinking about so index users (who might not be familiar with modernised forms of names) could find the writers they wanted to read about.

Names of parliamentary Acts were also a challenge.  For example, there were various Acts of Parliament relating to infant custody during the 19th century, with various names, but none was actually called the Infant Custody Act.  However, that was the shorthand form used by various authors in this collection.  Again, this was dealt with by double entry and cross references.  I did consider having a main heading for legislation relating to marriage, but decided not to in the end, as I wasn’t sure a reader would look for it.

Avoiding long strings was tricky in some areas. There were a lot of references to infidelity, for example, that didn’t have obvious conceptual subheadings.  I broke these up in the end by introducing subheadings relating to the book and author discussed at the locator, where relevant.


Well-structured chapters were easier to index. One particular chapter had, as its epigraph, the definitions of two key concepts dealt with in the chapter.  It was very clear what the main topics were in that chapter, aside from the name of the author and books discussed.  Discursive, less focused chapters were just as interesting to read, but harder to index as the structure didn’t present the topics and subtopics so clearly.  I also found it fascinating to watch a concept that wasn’t really foregrounded in the text – the commodification of women – emerge from a collection of essays all composed separately by different authors in various countries.

Lessons learned

The mind-map was immensely helpful as a tool to help keep the structure of the index in my mind while I was working.  Some topics seemed too thin at the editing stage, and I had to go back over the text to check for additional references. One or two were simply unexpected absences (only one author referred explicitly to engagements, for example, although there was a lot of discussion of courtship; engagements went into the index, with a see also reference to courtship) but for others I had been too stingy during the term selection phase.  I would hope to anticipate likely long strings better on future texts, and break these down as I go.