The Old Corrector

Richard Altick

  • Fortune and Men’s Eyes: The Career of John Payne Collier by Dewey Ganzel
    Oxford, 454 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 212231 2

Once convicted, the greatest forgers of English literary documents have stayed convicted. In two famous cases, those of the 17-year-old Thomas Chatterton, who fabricated poems he attributed to a mythical 15th-century Bristol monk, and the equally immature William Henry Ireland, who forged manuscripts by Shakespeare before which Boswell knelt in adoration, apologists have found a degree of extenuation in claiming that theirs were the follies of ambitious but misguided youth. Still, their guilt remains unquestioned, as does that of the monarch of them all, the diabolically clever Thomas J. Wise. When the Wise scandal erupted in 1934, only two or three quavering voices were raised in his defence and then were heard no more. John Payne Collier also had a few defenders at the outset of his ordeal, but after his presumed exposure was complete, no one publicly doubted his guilt, or that his purposes in committing his sensational hoax were an unforgivable breach of scholarly integrity.

Now, just short of a century after Collier’s death, an energetic American scholar has risen to clear his name. Fortune and Men’s Eyes is the studiously even-handed biography of an ambiguous and not especially likeable man who, Ganzel thinks, was convicted of a crime he did not commit. It is also, in part, an absorbing exercise in what might be called ‘forensic bibliography’, ranking with John Carter and Graham Pollard’s classic exposé of the Wise forgeries, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain 19th-Century Pamphlets. The story of Collier and his suspect ‘Perkins Folio’, the cause célèbre of Victorian literary criminology, is a tangled one, but Ganzel tells it with admirable lucidity.

Even if Collier had not ushered the much-vexed Perkins Folio into the world of Shakespeare scholarship in 1852, he would have found a place in the record books for the sheer length of his literary career, almost eighty years, from the day he became a Parliamentary reporter for the Times at the age of 15, until he died at the age of 94, still busily engaged in editing old literary texts. His output of original and edited material was prodigious: the first history of the English drama, a five-volume edition of Spenser, editions of old plays, ballads, the miscellaneous literary and historical lumber of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. Whatever his faults, he deserves to be remembered as one of the indispensable forerunners of modern literary scholarship.

In some respects, Collier was a born loser, as he was all too well aware. After thirty years of service on the Morning Chronicle as drama critic and leader-writer, he found himself demoted and earning the same pay as the rawest newcomer in the office. His association with a newspaper, in an age when working journalists still sat below the salt, was a count against him in intellectual circles. He played the game of preferment to the hilt, but apart from becoming librarian to the Duke of Devonshire, an unlucrative post, he always ended up empty-handed. He had strong hopes of becoming licenser of plays when the Duke was Lord Chamberlain and thus had the power to make the appointment, but the opportunity vanished when Devonshire resigned at the change of administration in 1834. Until well past mid-life (sixty years in his case) he was in financial straits. ‘Instead of floating down the stream of good luck,’ he wrote in 1850 to his faithful friend, the diarist Crabb Robinson, ‘I am left high and dry on the sand-bank of disappointment.’

He complained of injustice, but his misfortunes were partly of his own making. He was temperamentally constituted to attract trouble: his frustrated expectations merely intensified his innate pugnacity, brusqueness, superciliousness, aggressive insecurity. In his relations with fellow scholars he was cavalier and self-serving, chary of giving other workers their due except by way of blame. When, 70-years-old and in ill health, he was faced with the gravest crisis in his career, he was exceedingly vulnerable to attack, the more so because his considerable powers as a controversialist seemed to desert him whenever he found himself on the defensive. His numerous enemies had their knives ready for him: but he had helped unsheathe them.

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