The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime That Fooled the World 
by Joseph Hone.
Chatto, 336 pp., £22, March, 978 1 78474 467 0
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’sSonnets, a pamphlet of just 48 pages, was once the holy grail of book collectors. Copies that came to light were, to quote one biographer, ‘literally worth … more than their weight in gold’: at auction on Madison Avenue in 1930 one fetched $1250 (around $23,000 in today’s money). The book’s value was due not only to its extreme scarcity but to its central role in that most celebrated of literary love affairs, between Elizabeth and her fellow poet Robert Browning. Famously eloping in 1846 to escape her tyrannical father, they honeymooned in Pisa, and it was here one morning that Elizabeth shyly slipped a sheaf of papers into her new husband’s pocket. She hurried back to her private study, leaving Robert overcome by the contents: a series of love sonnets which, he declared, were the ‘finest … written in any language since Shakespeare’s’.

Despite Elizabeth’s initial protestations, he insisted they should not be kept from the world and a manuscript was sent to their friend Mary Russell Mitford in Reading with instructions to print a very limited number of copies. These slim volumes, bearing the title Sonnets by E.B.B., then seem to have disappeared from view, parcelled up with some of Mitford’s other books and papers at her death before making their way to an obscure poet called William Cox Bennett. They surfaced again only when Bennett invited a young book collector to his lodgings in Camberwell for buttered toast and sausages. As the plates were cleared away and the contents of Mitford’s parcel were emptied out onto the table, the collector – one Thomas James Wise – recognised the momentous find and bought all dozen copies.

So the story went, at any rate. But the entire tale – sausages and all – was made up by Wise. In reality the book didn’t exist before 1893, when Wise himself had forged it, concocting an entire backstory for its publication and rediscovery, safe in the knowledge that anyone who could have contradicted it – Mitford, Cox Bennett or the Brownings themselves – was safely dead. He’d then fed this myth to the literary editor Edmund Gosse, who breathlessly recounted it in the preface to a subsequent edition of the sonnets, where it assumed the status of fact. The only thing Wise hadn’t invented were the poems themselves. They were indeed written by Barrett Browning, published in 1850 as part of her collected works under the title ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, coyly hiding their passion behind a flimsy pretence of translation from an original. Wise had simply lifted these existing verses, reprinted them in a pamphlet under the fake imprint ‘Reading’ and backdated it to 1847.

It was the Sonnets that would eventually bring Wise down, though not until many decades later, in the 1930s. By then he was a pillar of the establishment, former president of the Bibliographical Society of London and one of the most influential and respected figures in the world of rare books. His private collection, the Ashley Library, was one of the finest in the world and later acquired by the British Museum. But Barrett Browning’s Sonnets were just the tip of the iceberg. More than fifty other books – some of the rarest and most valuable 19th-century first editions – were revealed to be the work of the same hand. With scores of copies of each, many in the world’s most prestigious libraries, Wise had put more than a thousand individual fakes into circulation. It was forgery on an industrial scale.

Joseph Hone’s hugely entertaining new account shows how this ‘Moriarty of the book world’ met his match in a duo of intrepid young book dealers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, whose investigation is ‘worthy of fiction’. The ‘impossibly debonaire’ Carter, with his immaculately pressed Savile Row suits, could easily be a real-life counterpart of Dorothy L. Sayers’s fictional sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. (It’s a nice touch that the affair gets a mention in her 1935 detective novel Gaudy Night. Wimsey himself had clearly been following it keenly.) The dishevelled, corduroy-clad communist Pollard has more than a whiff of Le Carré about him: in one of the story’s many twists, he turns out to be a secret agent for MI5. Hone makes the most of such fictional echoes. Shifting between the forger’s tale and the book detectives hunting him down some forty years later, The Book Forger unfolds as a propulsive if unlikely thriller, whose plot hinges on typographical minutiae and sherry parties.

Wise’s life of crime began innocuously enough in the 1870s, amid the bluestockings and genteel eccentrics of Bloomsbury’s literary societies. He was an obsessive bibliophile, spending every spare moment rummaging through second-hand book-barrows. He sold his rarer finds at a profit to finance his collecting habit, but the most valuable treasures remained far out of his reach. His junior clerk’s salary would never stretch to a Shakespeare First Folio. There were more modern rarities – early editions of Romantic and Victorian poetry – which he could afford, however, and he went in search of literary connections that might put him in the way of such books. Thus he began to frequent the Shelley Society, paying his guinea a year subscription to attend its weekly lectures. Such amateur societies were the main forum for the study of English poetry (the academic discipline of literature still confined itself to the ancient Greeks and Romans). But it also provided its members with something else: a chance to own reprints of Shelley’s more obscure and early writings.

Wise took charge of producing these facsimiles and found he was good at it, meticulous and with a keen eye for detail. Working with the printer Richard Clay and Sons, he was able to match all details of the original pamphlets, with the exception of the paper stock. His versions, he boasted, were ‘as exact a representation as it has been found possible’, with each ‘printer’s error, dropped letter or other peculiarity … being carefully retained’. But in 1886, just as he was working on a reprint of Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism, the poet’s son intervened, objecting that the work was too scandalous to reproduce. Wise, having already set the type, went ahead anyway and surreptitiously printed a handful of copies, removing any mention of the Shelley Society so that the imprint now simply read: ‘for private circulation’. In practical terms this was a small alteration, but changing the publication information shifted the pamphlet into more murky and ambiguous territory. Wise then repeated the trick, using a selection of Shelley’s poems and sonnets only recently uncovered and published in Edward Dowden’s biography. He transcribed them from Dowden’s book and printed them in pamphlet form, with their publication attributed to one Charles Alfred Seymour of the Philadelphia Historical Society. Both Seymour and the PHS were invented by Wise.

Dowden was understandably taken aback at Wise’s effrontery. So too was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when Wise borrowed some of Shelley’s unpublished letters from him, only to copy and publish them in a pamphlet that – according to its imprint – originated in New York. Wise’s justification was that he was simply making the work of a great poet more widely available, yet in retrospect it seems that he was honing what was to become his trademark method. Targeting lesser-known writings by major figures – often found in magazines – Wise would reprint the text as a standalone edition with a backdated publication year and a fake imprint. The result appeared to be an early, privately printed copy, and as such a valuable rarity, which he would then sell at auction or pass off to private collectors. By 1889 he had branched out from Shelley to George Eliot, Ruskin and Swinburne, creating more than a dozen antedated editions in that year alone. The move from persuasive facsimile to deliberate forgery was complete. He was no longer simply a collector of ‘modern first editions’: now he was manufacturing them too.

Working by day for the Rubeck trading company, Wise had risen from junior clerk to broker in exotic goods. Books, he recognised, were just another sort of commodity. He was quick to spot gaps in the market, exploiting the tantalising ‘what-ifs’ in publishing history. What if some copies of Tennyson’s narrative poem Enoch Arden (1864) had been printed under its original title ‘Idylls of the Hearth’, before the poet’s last-minute change of heart? And what if these copies had then been buried away and forgotten in an auctioneer’s warehouse? It was a plausible speculation that Wise brought to life, buying up actual first editions of Enoch Arden and paying Clay and Sons to print a fake title page that was then swapped with the real one. (In the 1920s, the book was advertised by the book dealers Maggs Bros as an ‘excessively rare trial issue’ of ‘Idylls of the Hearth’, valued at thirty pounds or more.) But inventing publishing lacunae was even more effective than exploiting those that already existed. In 1896 he published Literary Anecdotes of the 19th Century, in which he speculated that Algernon Swinburne’s ‘The Devil’s Due’, a prose text published in the Examiner twenty years earlier, may also have been printed in pamphlet form for private distribution. Lo and behold, a few months later, Wise himself discovered just such a volume.

As with Barrett Browning’s Sonnets, Wise didn’t simply counterfeit books: he also manufactured their provenance. They were carefully laundered, fed into the rare books market in a way that allayed any doubts about their sudden appearance decades after their supposed publication. Anyone wanting to check the publication date of one of his rare pamphlets merely had to consult the supreme bibliographical authority of the British Library catalogue to be reassured of its genuine status. (He ensured that copies reached the librarians, along with his own notes on provenance.) Sometimes he even convinced authors themselves that forgeries of their work were the genuine article. In a move that demonstrates chutzpah and callousness in equal measure, he engineered an introduction to Swinburne in order to alert the ageing poet to one of his confections. It was a pamphlet edition of ‘Cleopatra’, a poem only ever published in Cornhill Magazine in 1866. Bemused, Swinburne was persuaded that it must have been the unauthorised work of his printer. Wise then gifted the poet a copy of this unexpected first edition, ensuring that there was written correspondence confirming its authenticity.

Wise effectively rewrote the historical record – sometimes literally, in the reference works he was increasingly invited to lend his name to. He wrote a catalogue of Tennyson’s works, which of course included his own fakes, and graciously offered his assistance in compiling a new bibliography of the work of John Ruskin, thus ensuring that his forged editions of Ruskin’s letters and essays were included in it. As his reputation and authority grew, he was able to play both gamekeeper and poacher, using his column in the Bookman to rail against forgeries while deflecting attention away from his own. ‘Easy as it appears to be to fabricate reprints of rare books,’ he wrote, ‘it is in actual practice absolutely impossible to do so in such a manner that detection cannot follow the result.’

They were words that would come back to haunt him. Wise’s method was clever, but not flawless. Sometimes hubris got the better of him. He’d once attempted to write a preface in the style of Ruskin that didn’t pass the smell test of later editors. And by the 1920s, doubts had begun to circle around other books too – in particular, Barrett Browning’s Sonnets. Why had no copies been sold at auction before 1901? And why didn’t Robert Browning himself ever own one? Book dealers had their private suspicions, but it would take a new kind of expertise to prove the fraud. Pollard and Carter, both Soho booksellers, were aficionados of an emerging kind of bibliographic method. Where literary forgery had previously been analysed through textual criticism, unpicking the original version from later interpolations and additions, the ‘new bibliography’ was focused on the book itself, on the ‘look and feel of the ink and the paper’. For the first time, the printed object was subjected to scientific scrutiny, every watermark and stain examined until it gave up its secrets.

Carter and Pollard began their investigation in the early 1930s, homing in on one particular feature of Wise’s pamphlet edition: its ‘kernless f’. In older typefaces the character has an overhanging arm – a kern – which projects over its neighbours. The detail was phased out in the later 19th century as too fragile for machine presses. The ‘f’ of the Sonnets thus gave it away: there was no way it could have been published as early as 1847. Weeks of trawling through type specimen books then produced a match with a particular typeface: Long Primer No. 20, dating from 1883. Many printers used it, but there was another telling quirk in the Sonnets: the question mark seemed to be a misfit, an italic character used in place of the correct symbol. Like a fingerprint, it made the font unique. But the breakthrough didn’t come until Pollard spotted an 1893 facsimile edition of Matthew Arnold’s Alaric at Rome. The text displayed both the kernless f and the misfit question mark. Pollard only had to flip to the book’s front matter to see who had set the type: Richard Clay and Sons. But there was another important piece of information there too: the facsimile had been commissioned by Thomas James Wise.

Painstakingly​ amassing their dossier of evidence, Pollard and Carter finally confronted their suspect. Backed into a corner, Wise came out swinging with the ferocity of a man with everything to lose. He threatened and intimidated the younger men, publishing angry and rambling ripostes in the press. He vainly attempted to pass the blame onto associates and accomplices, then enlisted loyal allies to fight his case in the letters column of the Times Literary Supplement. But in the end, he ran out of road and out of friends. In 1934, Pollard and Carter published their exposé of the affair, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, printed, in a nice touch of irony, by Clay and Sons. Wise lapsed into silence, and an announcement in the TLS from his wife finally stated that ill-health prevented him from carrying on further ‘public correspondence’ about the matter. His death came just three years after Pollard and Carter’s book was published. He never confessed.

The Book Forger draws on Pollard and Carter’s original account for the details but is no mere retread. On legal advice the Enquiry pulled its punches, stopping short of accusing Wise directly. Hone, though, is able to lay out all the damning evidence of his forgeries, and much more besides. The full extent of Wise’s activities was discovered only in the 1950s. In later years he had turned his attention to older volumes, to the quarto playbooks of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Jonson, Marlowe and Middleton. These he hadn’t forged but doctored, slicing pages out of priceless copies in the British Library to complete his own defective versions. He patched up his own edition of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1773) by stealing all except the title page from the library’s copy. But Hone’s book ranges beyond the direct circumstances of the Wise affair. It’s an unexpectedly gripping history of bibliography, a discipline which emerges – as much as Carter and Pollard – as the dashing hero of the hour. This newly forensic approach to books was what finally caught up with Wise, partly because it’s a method that mirrors forgery itself: attuned to the minute material details of watermarks, paperstocks and typefaces. Both are focused on the ‘visceral pull’ of the book as an irreducibly physical, singular object.

The Book Forger is also a useful reflection on literary forgery in general, which speaks to our own era of post-truth and deepfakes. Wise was not a forger in the same sense as the hapless William Henry Ireland, who claimed to have discovered an entire new Shakespeare play – ‘Vortigern’ – before suffering the indignity of having it laughed offstage in 1796. Instead, he took what existed and repackaged it, wrapping his fakes around reality so tightly that the threads are hard to untangle. In that sense the results are not forgeries so much as counterfactuals, editions that could have existed but didn’t. Or they could be seen as part of print’s long history of piracy and subterfuge: false imprints and misleading title pages were once common practice, employed by pressmen for a variety of reasons. To add to the complications, Wise’s works were sometimes themselves imitated by less skilled hands, making them, in that context at least, the genuine article. And in the present day, ‘Wiseana’ has become collectable in its own right – valuable precisely because it is the authentic work of a master forger. Meanwhile Wise’s monument, the Ashley Library (acquired by the British Museum after his death), now exists in a kind of limbo in the current British Library, part literary bequest, part crime scene. With the task of sorting the real from the fake still incomplete, the collection remains largely uncatalogued and access is restricted.

With the added perspective of nearly a century, Hone is able to give a fleshed-out portrait of his protagonists’ historical and cultural milieux. It’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for Wise, the lowly but ambitious young clerk whose abiding memory of his mother was her love of Shelley, and who would get up before dawn to scour the bookstalls on his way to work. Hard, too, not to see the contrast with Carter and Pollard, all Oxbridge erudition and easy privilege. For this new generation of self-styled ‘Biblio Boys’, Wise was an object of snobbish ridicule, a pompous old bore who would harangue colleagues with his ‘ugly cockney voice’. At heart, then, this is a story about class and status. Books, for Wise, meant social currency as much as cold hard cash. Hobnobbing with the literary great and good was perhaps a way to prove he was the equal of those more educated than himself. Fooling them may have proved that he was actually better. But it wasn’t just books he forged: he also made a forgery of himself. Ensconced in his Hampstead mansion in later years amid the trappings of his empire of fakes, his honorary degrees from Oxford and his membership of the exclusive Roxburghe Club, it must have been hard to separate artifice and reality. Even the mahogany bookshelves housing his prized Ashley Library, dismantled after his death, turned out to be veneer.

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