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.

In the perilous atmosphere of Shakespeare studies in the Early Victorian era, anybody who ventured to publish a new edition of the plays, as Collier did in 1842-44, took his chances. Ostensibly acting as public benefactors by producing texts that were professedly ‘better’ than any that had preceded, as well as uncovering more and more of the historical and biographical circumstances in which the plays were written, Shakespeare scholars fought in a bear garden of their own design. Not that one hears the ‘splat-splat’ of the mudpies (to use the politest figure) that Swinburne and F.J. Furnivall were to shy at each other in an embarrassing exchange of Billingsgate in 1880, over the poet’s A Study of Shakespeare: the scholars of Collier’s time phrased their acrimony with pens dipped in acid, a practice that was much more genteel, as befitted the gentlemen they weren’t, and much more insidious.

Too many of Collier’s colleagues – and therefore, as things turned out, his adversaries – shared his worst traits. Their unquestioned devotion to literary-historical research and editing, and above all to Shakespeare, was fatally tainted by truculence, suspicion, egotism and sheer enmity. They were not professional scholars in the modern sense, because that breed of academic specialist did not then exist. None of the impressive but sometimes uncritical and erroneous literary and bibliographical erudition they carried could have been obtained in any kind of formal education. They were self-taught, acquiring their knowledge at great expense of mind and spirit in the time they took from earning livelihoods, sometimes precarious ones, as librarians, sinecurist clergymen or lawyers. For that reason, they had invested an excessive amount of emotional capital in what was essentially an avocation. And because none of them was wealthy, they also regarded the editions they produced as another kind of capital from which, with luck and shrewd management, they might extract a fair amount of profit. Under these conditions, their protestations of disinterestedness and good will as they pursued their rivalries were disingenuous. They were amateurs, to be sure, but neurotically-driven amateurs with little love for one another, and scarcely more lovable to us than their contemporary, the unspeakable Sir Thomas Phillipps, the monomaniac who ruthlessly amassed and guarded what was reputed to be the hugest collection of manuscripts ever owned by a private person, so big that the dispersal of it had to be spread over two or three generations. Their virtue lay in their being self-willed martyrs to the sacred cause of learning. Their defect lay in their addiction to vituperation and jealousy, which was meat and drink to them, and in their readiness to convert differences of opinion into personal vendettas.

Collier’s role as editor of Shakespeare, to say nothing of his temperament, qualified him to join this troubled coterie. Despite an assault by the Rev. Alexander Dyce, a rival editor who was to join in the later, louder hue and cry, the edition established his reputation. He anticipated the modern editor in his concentration on the progress of the earliest editions of the plays through the fallible press as providing the key to the authoritative text, the closest to the one which came from the author’s pen: a procedure at odds with that of 18th-century editors, who devoted themselves to ‘conjecturing’ what Shakespeare wrote, or meant to write, in those thousands upon thousands of cases where the printed words seemed not to make sense. By 1850, however, Collier had seemingly changed his mind, in deference, Ganzel suggests, to ‘signs that the public’s interest in a rigorous text had waned’ and that ‘any successful new edition of Shakespeare would have to accommodate that change.’ In the new edition he proposed, his second, the text would be based on the customary conjectural system rather than on a word-by-word comparison of the quartos in which many of the plays first appeared with the subsequent folios in which they were collected.

Providentially, as it appeared at the time, a volume fell into Collier’s hands which richly met his needs: a copy of the second folio (1632), once owned by an unidentifiable man named Perkins and annotated throughout with some twenty thousand textual emendations in what seemed to be a 17th-century hand. Purchased for 30 shillings from a Newport Street bookseller named Rodd, it was the literary find of the century. The only discovery that could have stirred more excitement would have been a copy of the first folio corrected with equal lavishness in Shakespeare’s own hand – a remote possibility, given the fact that the first folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death. One could assume, as Collier did when he announced this treasure-trove in 1852, that the emendations had been made, if not by an actor on the contemporary stage, then by someone else who either had access to the texts used in contemporary performances or was a most devoted and retentive playgoer.

The discovery came at a moment when several new editions of Shakespeare were in preparation. If the ‘Old Corrector’s’ emendations were authoritative, Collier’s proposed new edition, incorporating them, would turn the others into waste paper before they were printed. At once Collier’s rivals, with a mixture of dismay at their own prospective losses and of sheer envy of his incredible luck, raised the inevitable questions. Who was Perkins? Who had owned the folio before Rodd (now dead, hence unable to testify) bought it? Who was the Old Corrector? How authoritative – how genuinely ‘Shakespearean’ – were his emendations? Or were they genuine at all? It is typical of the distrustfulness prevalent among Shakespeare students, and of their personal regard for Collier, that from the first it was intimated – fear of libel preventing outright accusation – that he had written the swarming corrections himself.

One of his accusers at this stage was a man named Andrew Brae, an outrider who had no connection with the rest. The cause of his animus was as obscure as the motiveless malignity with which, at this very time, Mr F.’s aunt was pursuing the unoffending Arthur Clennam through the pages of Little Dorrit. Brae inundated Notes and Queries with a series of articles attacking the Perkins emendations on philological grounds, his reckless fury increasing as Collier’s other adversaries, resenting his intrusion on their turf, ignored him. When he continued his assault in a pamphlet called Literary Cookery, Collier sued him for libel and won a pale sort of judicial victory. But Brae’s malice was contagious and helped keep the anti-Collier crusade aflame.

Shortly after he acquired the folio, Collier exhibited it briefly at meetings of learned societies, and in the ensuing years printed most, but not all, of the emendations. But he withstood the rising demand that he submit it to other experts for a thorough examination. In May 1859, however, the new Duke of Devonshire, to whose late father Collier had given it, acceded to the request of Sir Frederic Madden, the Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, that it be lent to him for inspection. The controversial volume thus was brought into an atmosphere which was itself heavy with dispute, for the Museum was seething, as it had been for many years, with intra-mural intrigue and jealousy. As far as Collier himself was concerned, the institution and its rancorous staff represented a living monument to yet another defeated expectation he had suffered some ten years earlier. During a Royal Commission’s investigation of the British Museum’s management, he had given testimony on the kind of catalogue the library should possess: a printed one (the existing one was chaos in manuscript form) whose entries would be of the maximum immediate assistance to readers wishing to identify and locate a certain book. He thus spoke in opposition to Antonio Panizzi, the Keeper of Printed Books, an Italian political exile of boundless energy and conviction, who is usually credited with transforming the British Museum library from a relic of the dark ages of librarianship into a flourishing, efficient institution worthy of the Victorian period. (Ganzel paints him in somewhat darker colours.) Panizzi argued for a manuscript – not printed – catalogue whose entries would be distinguished by cumbersome bibliographical detail. Panizzi, having expertly manipulated the commission’s deliberations, won. Collier’s hopes, this time of obtaining a permanent, well-paid position in the British Museum, perhaps as editor of the catalogue, were blasted once more.

Given Collier’s characteristically tactless opposition to the man in power, it was only fitting that the British Museum should have served as the staging-point for the assault on his precious folio that now got under way. Madden, the borrower of the book, was a paranoid like Collier and Brae, but whereas their visitations were relatively mild and intermittent, his was pathological and permanent, as his diaries attest. Although Panizzi’s senior in service, he had seen Panizzi, through a legal nicety, snatch the head librarianship he coveted, and for thirty years he remained his superior’s deadly enemy. He hated Collier because in 1854 Collier had been less than helpful when Madden got into trouble by buying for the British Museum 160 old manuscripts which proved to have been stolen from the library of Collier’s second bibliophile patron, the Earl of Ellesmere. In the campaign that was now mounted against the Perkins Folio and its all too fortunate discoverer, Madden remained in the background, preferring to use as cat’s paw a non-member of the British Museum staff, Clement Mansfield Ingleby, who had relatively little interest in Shakespeare and who, like Brae, had never even met Collier. But it was a third party, Madden’s assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, the liberally christened Nicholas E.S.A. Hamilton, who exploded the initial bombshell in a letter to the Times five weeks after the folio had arrived in Madden’s office. Hamilton announced to the world that on many pages of the book were faint pencil marks, some in the margins, some, most damningly, under the inked emendations. The easy inference was that Collier – not some Old Corrector – had written these as guides for the subsequent inking-in of the ‘corrections’ and had failed to erase them. Hamilton also maintained, as a handwriting expert, that the Old Corrector’s writing was not of the 17th century, nor indeed, of any particular time, though it came closest to being modern.

Shortly after this letter appeared, Ingleby published (and dedicated to Brae) a book called The Shakespeare Fabrications, in which he repeated and expanded upon Hamilton’s charges. Some months later, in January 1860, Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he enlarged on the bill of particulars to include an old charge, formerly made only obliquely, that before Collier’s purchase of the Perkins Folio he had engaged in a series of wholesale forgeries, including manuscripts in the library of the Earl of Ellesmere and insertions in important manuscripts relating to the Elizabethan stage at Dulwich College. This of course was a separate issue, but it was useful in establishing a presumptive pattern of criminal behaviour. (More than a century later, as recently as 1971, a member of the staff of the Folger Shakespeare Library brought a fresh charge against Collier: the fabrication of 83 ballads in a manuscript commonplace book he owned. Ganzel vigorously disputes the charge.)

To bolster their case, Madden and Ingleby sought to prove that the fateful emendations had not been in the Perkins Folio when it left Rodd’s hands. An unexpected witness for the defence, no less a personage than the Principal of New College, Oxford, asserted in a letter to Madden that he had happened to see the book at Rodd’s shop and that the emendations had been there then. Madden and Ingleby, never to be discouraged, sought to discredit his testimony. They proceeded, most ill-advisedly as it proved, to advertise for the former owner, hoping he would testify that the emendations were not in the book when he sold it. The owner answered the advertisement at once, only to declare that the emendations had in fact been there when he bought it. These twin bits of crucial information were suppressed.

Ingleby’s summing-up in his A Complete View of the Shakespeare Controversy (1861) belied its title. A massive compilation of most of the printed documents the controversy had generated, it was far from complete, in that it ignored or distorted the considerable amount of evidence, and inferences from that evidence, which militated against Collier’s guilt. But it was received as what it purported to be, the last word in the by now wearisome dispute, and has remained so to this day. Not a single voice was raised in the old man’s defence. Swinburne, to be sure, praised Collier’s services to scholarship without committing himself to a ‘blind confidence in the authority or value’ of the Perkins Folio. Such qualified praise from one of Furnivall’s adversaries was enough to sustain that peppery, cocksure scholar’s exertions as an anti-Collierite long after Collier’s original enemies had left the battleground.

Ganzel has counterbalanced Ingleby’s indictment by a fresh examination of all the evidence, circumstantial and textual, that was ever alleged against Collier. He has scrutinised the emendations in the Perkins Folio, now at the Huntington Library in California, with a scepticism somewhat different from that of Collier’s accusers, for, has he says in his first pages, he approached the tendentious case with an open mind. The conclusion of his meticulously prepared and skilfully argued review is that Collier was not guilty as charged. Granted that he was no lamb among the wolves, was he the victim of an outright conspiracy? Although Ganzel uses the word, there was never a conspiracy in the sense that a whole cabal, a veritable mutton-chop mafia, merging their individual grievances into a common hatred of Collier, sat down one day in a room in the British Museum and vowed to ‘get’ him. At least, Ganzel has found no evidence of such a plot, although he has ransacked Collier’s and Madden’s private papers. But, he insists, Collier was framed. It was poetic justice of a sort, if Justice is equipped with a sense of irony along with her blindfold: the alleged manufacturer of evidence was convicted by evidence which was itself manufactured by someone else – none other than Sir Frederic Madden himself, who, Ganzel argues, forged the fateful pencil marks. With this accusation Ganzel has dramatically reopened the case of the Perkins Folio. He may also (and I think this is likely) have nailed it down for good.