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.

The biggest question of all is still unanswered. Why did they do it? More particularly, why did Wise do it? One theory is that the partners were sucked into forgery via legitimate facsimile printing and affection for their subjects. Forman and Wise were unusual Victorian bibliophiles in that they cultivated not old books and authors, but ‘moderns’ – that is, the great writers of their own century. In a period well before universities could find house room for late Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites and Victorians, Forman put together his monumental eight-volume edition of Shelley (1876-80) and four-volume Keats (1883). Wise did the same for the Brontës and Swinburne. Both of them hunted down and haggled for the manuscripts, proofs, letters and early editions that form the primary materials which today’s scholars have served up to them in libraries, and which they sometimes like to claim they have ‘discovered’. Partly, Wise and Forman were edged into the modern period by the fact that, as collectors, their middle-class purses were not long enough to collect old books. But there was passion as well as expediency in their specialisms. They loved their authors. Forman and Wise met at two of the numerous ‘societies’, or literary fan clubs founded by F. J. Furnivall (a fascinating figure in his own right). The most successful of these societies were those devoted to giants of the 19th century such as Ruskin, Shelley and – pre-eminently – Browning. It was as the officer in charge of printing at the Shelley Society that Wise formed his alliance with Forman. There, too, he learned how to fake pamphlets, with the above-board facsimiles (printed by Clay) that the society made up for its members. And it was as a member of the Browning Society that Wise picked up the gossip that enabled him to fabricate a plausible provenance for his most famous forgery, the ‘1847’ Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Wise and Forman undoubtedly slid by degrees into forgery from their legitimate mock-ups for the Shelley and Browning Societies, but the final step can hardly have been unwitting. Collins seems to favour low greed as an explanation. Himself an antiquarian bookseller, he estimates that up to 1903 (i.e. some fifteen years after going into business) about £900 was obtained from the sale of forged pamphlets in England and twice that amount in America – a combined sum worth about £150,000 in modern currency. Since Wise over-printed these misnamed ‘limited editions’, and fed them judiciously into the market over many years, they afforded a regular income long after the ‘forgery factory’ ceased production around 1906. Both Forman and Wise used the more alluring of their pamphlets to ‘salt’ batches of otherwise dull books that they had for sale.

Their forgery was, as Collins demonstrates, a profitable operation. But one is struck by the fact that in their main lines of business – as commodity broker and senior civil servant – Wise and Forman seem to have been professional men of excellent character. Both occupied positions of high financial trust. Both rose from the bottom to the top of their professions, and at every promotion their probity must have been examined and found unimpeachable. Forman began at 18 as an £80-a-year clerk in the Post Office and ended, on his retirement in 1905, as joint second secretary. As Collins notes, ‘Forman rose higher in the PO than any other literary man of his time’ (much higher than Anthony Trollope, for example). Wise began as a 16-year-old office boy in a commodity-importing firm. He ended as chief clerk and cashier, handling tens of thousands of pounds annually. Had they been deep-dyed crooks, these men could surely have made greater fortunes by embezzling, or turning their forger’s skills to their employers’ accounts. It was only as bookmen that Wise and Forman were dishonest.

I suspect that many bookish people have a relaxed morality where their reading matter is concerned. If you lend a friend a book you are much less likely to see it again than if you lend him a tenner or even 10p. There are anecdotes about Wise which demonstrate the double morality of the dedicated book collector – the surrender of basic decencies to the thrill of the hunt. When Forman died in 1917, Wise helped clear his house and was discovered as having ‘accidentally’ put a copy of Queen Mab with Shelley’s own annotations in his overcoat pocket. On being found out, Wise replaced the priceless volume, ‘chuckling genially’. It is hard to believe that he would have been so light-fingered with any Ming vase or bag of sovereigns that he found lying about his dead friend’s house.

Book-collecting, when done well, is a very predatory business. ‘Acumen’ is a common euphemism for sharp practice, or downright chiselling. Collins tells in passing a number of stories on the lines of some clever bookman picking an item up for 2d at a stall that later turns out to be worth a small fortune. Such anecdotes are the staples of book lore. And always the stress is on the admirable sharpness of the purchaser, not the unfairness to the stallholder who is robbed of the true value of his wares. Forman and Wise extended the same sharpness to gullible book collectors, men and institutions. Reversing the book-stall situation, they induced their customers to buy for tens or hundreds of pounds something that was actually worth 2d. As Collins points out, wide-awake London bookbuyers were well aware of the fishiness of Wise pamphlets long before An Enquiry startled the world. Carter’s initial curiosity about Wise was stimulated by a manager of Quaritch’s who replied, when asked for a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese: ‘It’s a book we don’t much care for.’

Who, at the end of the day, was injured by the pamphlets of Wise and Forman? Least of all the authors they revered. As Ian Hayward points out in his study of the politics of forgery, Faking it (1987), ‘T. J. Wise’s crime was wholly bibliographical. He tampered with the book-making operation ... He did not tamper with the text in any way. He made no intrusions into the imaginative content of the books he faked.’ Some editors and literary estates had their work pirated while it was still in copyright and were bilked of some petty permission fees. But since the market that Wise and Forman catered for was entirely artificial they were poaching no one else’s sales. The main victims of the forgeries were the idiot collectors of ‘first editions’ and souvenir off-prints. These were typically rich men with more money than sense. Wise’s main milch cow over the years was a Chicago banker, John Henry Wrenn. From the mid-1890s until Wrenn’s death in 1911, Wise unloaded on the American magnate an avalanche of overvalued, misdescribed or forged produce. The collection – with its most complete extant set of Wise-Forman forgeries – ended up in Texas, where the pamphlets have recently been proudly exhibited.

If one could have dug deep into Wise’s mind one would probably have found underlying scorn for his dupes – those would-be Yankee bookmen. Real collectors, like himself, tracked down their prey like big-game hunters. In 1895 Wise, Forman and their fellow bookman Clement Shorter discovered the whereabouts in Ireland of Charlotte Brontë’s now penurious husband and wheedled a vast treasury of the author’s literary remains for £400. It was one of the great hauls of the century. So-called American collectors like Wrenn, Pierpont Morgan or H. E. Huntington expected dollars to do their hard work for them. If they lost a large percentage in the process, they could afford it.

The modest volume of the Wise-Forman forgeries is a mitigating factor. They produced their fraudulent pamphlets on a cottage scale – a hundred or so, over twenty years. Others committed book fraud on an industrial scale. John Collins points a finger at the most respectable of the Victorian-Edwardian book restorers: ‘Riviere was a firm with wonderfully skilled workmen. For some thirty or forty years, say 1880-1920, a constant stream of cripples – that is, books in some way defective – must have passed through its shop to emerge in gleaming new gilt facsimile, imperfects imperceptibly married to make one perfect – wormholes filled in, tears repaired and the whole book washed to uniform whiteness. Riviere was so good at it that his name pallet on a binding acts nowadays as a warning signal to look more closely at the contents of his morocco.’ Robert Riviere outforged Thomas Wise by at least a hundred to one. The only other distinction to be made between them is in the nebulous sphere of intention. The binder did not actively intend to deceive, merely to repair (although perusal of the stock and catalogues of London booksellers must have revealed to Riviere that he was an accomplice to deception). Wise, we assume, had the formed intention to deceive from the beginning.

At the end of the day, the scholarly services of the two forgers far outweigh any offence they can be accused of committing against literature, or private property. They pioneered modern practice by basing their editions of 19th-century writers on manuscript material and the ‘scientific’ study of early printed texts. As self-made scholars, their careers are heroic. Wise left school early and had his higher education from the Camden Road Mutual Improvement Society. Neither went to university. Each achieved more single-handedly, in the way of scholarship, than whole departments of English – all this while making successful careers elsewhere. Frugal to a fault, both men lavished their money (including their ill-gotten gains) on the books they loved. Wise’s ‘Ashley’ collection – ‘the finest private library in the kingdom’ – went to the British Museum at a bargain price after his death. As Ian Hayward argues, even the most heinous of Wise’s crimes – the clandestine tearing out of leaves from BM 17th-century plays to repair his own imperfect copies – can be extenuated. Many of his ‘sophisticated’ quartos found their way back to the British Museum as plums in the Ashley Library. They were highly saleable items, but he kept them for himself and ultimately the nation.

All the main players in the Wise drama are now dead (the last, John Carter, died in 1975). Now the dust has cleared one can see that the conflict was in large part generational. Carter and Pollard, young bookseller and academic, were attacking the father figures of English bibliography in much the same way that Bloomsbury attacked Mrs Humphry Ward. Both (particularly Wise, whose father was drunken and working-class) were largely self-educated and entirely self-made. Carter and Pollard were upper-crust, public-school and Oxbridge-educated. Silver spoons were stuffed down their throats from the moment they were born. At bay, Wise was convinced that the ‘sewer rats’ (as he called his young tormentors) were politically motivated. He – the rich commodity broker – was capitalism incarnate. Pollard held Party Card No 1 of the Young Communist League of Great Britain, and was a stalwart of the Daily Worker. His dandy radical politics were matched by Carter’s Saville Row suits and monocle.

As important were the doctrinal differences of the generations. Forman and Wise were descriptive bibliographers: they specialised in the meticulous taxonomy, or listing of books to the highest standard of specification. Pollard and Carter were analytic bibliographers. They brought Wise down by pointing to minuscule anachronisms in a kerned ‘f’, and by chemical analysis of the pamphlets’ paper, by which they proved its manufacture must have post-dated the spurious date of printing. Wise and Forman’s innumerable catalogues were a higher form of clerking. Pollard and Carter were scientists, who used microscopes and reagents to get their results. At the time, it looked as if the analytic technique was not just a step forward but the end of the road – just as it was thought that forensic detection (such as the use of fingerprints) would dominate criminal investigation. The detective and the bibliographer of the future would wear white coats. As recent reversed court judgments have shown, forensic evidence lends itself to the grossest forgeries. So, too, with bibliography. Now, it seems, the microscope and the Hinman Collator are giving way to the computer. And with microchip technology returns descriptive bibliography in the form of the database and the computerised catalogue.

In Forgers and Critics, Anthony Grafton proposes an entirely new look at the relationship of ‘creativity and duplicity’ in Western scholarship. A Classicist with the gift of making his arguments fascinating to non-Classicists, Grafton takes as his starting point the vast mass of forgery in the ancient world and in the Western Renaissance. His thesis is that criticism, as a practice, evolved as a kind of necessary antidote to forgery. Forgery in turn was driven to escape criticism by higher flights of ingenuity – thus setting up a benign spiral. Far from anathematising literary forgery – as we do when we confuse it with the counterfeiting of money – we should accept it as part of the opposition between art and judgment on which a healthy culture depends. ‘Forgery and philology fell and rose together, in the Renaissance as in Hellenistic Alexandria. Sometimes the forgers were the first to create or restate elegant critical methods; sometimes the philologists beat them to it. And in all cases criticism has been dependent for its development on the stimulus that forgers have provided.’ Follow Grafton’s logic through, and the stimulating Mr Wise, having served his time in history’s doghouse, deserves a belated vote of thanks.