Well done, you forgers

John Sutherland

  • The Two Forgers: A Biography of Harry Buxton Forman and Thomas James Wise by John Collins
    Scolar, 317 pp, £27.50, May 1992, ISBN 0 85967 754 0
  • Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship by Anthony Grafton
    Princeton, 157 pp, £10.75, May 1990, ISBN 0 691 05544 0

It is difficult to talk sensibly about literary forgery when one has to call it that. The term carries heavy legal baggage. Criminal forgery – in the form of counterfeit money or altered wills – is a major felony. Like poisoning, or arson, it receives sentences of medieval harshness. Literary forgery is much hazier. Meum and Tuum are routinely confused in creative writing. Many of literature’s conventions – the ‘found’ manuscript, the ‘true history’, pseudonymy – originate in primitive forgery, or mimic it. It is not clear that even an arch literary forger like Thomas J. Wise actually committed a criminal act for which he could be prosecuted by the DPP. It would be sensible to replace the term ‘literary forgery’ with Anthony Grafton’s neologism, ‘pseudepigrapha’. This blanket description would cover everything from Chatterton’s fake poems to George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ spoofs without any automatic presumptions of wrong-doing.

Carter and Pollard’s unmasking of T. J. Wise with their Enquiry into the Nature of Certain 19th-Century Pamphlets (1934) is often described as an exemplary piece of crime-busting, or as Bernard Levin puts it, ‘a classic of bibliographical detection, a thousandfold more exciting than anything Agatha Christie and her kind ever penned’. It’s a generous compliment, but inexact. In the first place, as I have said, it is not clear what crime Wise committed by uttering his forgeries, or by making money out of them. Secondly, Agatha Christie and her kind offer neat solutions to their mysteries. The Wise puzzle has never been satisfactorily cleared up. Large gaps remain in motivation and as to the cast of conspirators. Carter and Pollard never believed they had uncovered the whole story, and pursued a stonily unresponsive Wise for the last three years of his life. On his deathbed, in 1937, the old rogue was asked to confess and allegedly replied: ‘It’s all too complicated to go into now.’

Recent sleuthing has filled in some of the gaps. Nicholas Barker and John Collins’s A Sequel to ‘An Enquiry’ (1983) clarifies the role of Wise’s reluctant partner, Harry Buxton Forman. The forgers’ liaison is fleshed out further in the biographical The Two Forgers, which offers the fullest and most readable narrative to date. Forman, the older, better-bred man and a high-ranking civil servant in the Post Office, was, as Collins surmises, blackmailed into committing his offences against literature by his partner, a man whose morality was loosened by his professional work as a commodity broker. In 1887,

Wise certainly entered into his new role as forger with alacrity and it is clear that Forman, though at first helpful, was later dragged kicking and screaming in his wake. But once in the secret, he could not get out: Wise had the drop on him. If the conspiracy had been exposed, Wise’s fellows on the commodity exchange ... would probably have reckoned him culpable as to be so careless as to be found out. Forman, as a civil servant and an established literary figure, would have been in a much more difficult position. He might well have been ruined, sacked from the PO without a pension and with his literary reputation in tatters.

It’s very plausible. But there are still malefactors missing. We have the ruthless mastermind (Wise), the unwilling henchman (Forman), and some of the gang’s stooges like Herbert Gorfin, the none-too-bright office boy who was set up by Wise in later life as a bookseller to merchandise his dubious pamphlets (out of a mixture of snobbery and prudence Wise resolutely maintained the pretence that he himself was not a book dealer): but there must surely have been accomplices in the printing trade. The bulk of the forgeries were manufactured by the eminently respectable Richard Clay and Sons. The firm cannot, over a period of twenty years, have turned out a hundred or so piracies and ‘creative forgeries’ without someone noticing that their work was circulating in the second-hand market under false colours and at hugely inflated prices. Legitimate printers are very nervous about breaking the law. How Wise corrupted or hoodwinked his printers – whether by kickbacks, lies or the same kind of blackmail he used on Forman – remains mysterious.

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