Manufactured Humbug

Frank Kermode

  • John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the 19th Century by Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman
    Yale, 1483 pp, £100.00, August 2004, ISBN 0 300 09661 5

Shakespeare scholarship in the mid 19th century, one gathers, was not only very competitive but also morally dangerous. It could threaten the virtue, even on occasion the sanity, of its practitioners, a diverse group united only by their lust for Shakespeareana and their unflaggingly competitive spirit. Enthusiastic, self-taught amateurs, they developed professional skills at a time when university professionals took little interest in vernacular scholarship. They mostly earned their livings in other clerkly trades, as journalists, parliamentary reporters or lawyers. In their spare time they collected 16th and 17th-century books and manuscripts, learned booty which was much easier to find than it later became, and pored unsupervised over ancient documents in virtually unexplored public and private collections. They worked heroically and announced their discoveries with extraordinary fervour. They met, to compliment or deceive one another, at certain booksellers, or in the British Museum Reading Rooms, where they might make the acquaintance of the scholarly but not always accessible palaeographers who dominated that library. They anxiously cultivated the aristocratic owners of great private collections, and they published their discoveries at a rate that can only be called abandoned, meanwhile exchanging insults, though mostly in gentlemanly prose. For learned disputes had gentlemanly antecedents, and so had learned fabrications; even Thomas Warton was guilty, and he was the author of the standard History of English Poetry, a work some Shakespeare hunters saw as a model for their much desired history of English drama.

The deceits practised by the 19th-century forgers were more sophisticated, though less celebrated, than those with which William Henry Ireland in the previous century had deceived James Boswell and many others, though not the great Shakespearean Edmond Malone (himself guilty of tampering with manuscripts). The men of this new age were scholars, working in a tradition often said to have originated with Malone and achieving, in the 20th century, an extraordinary degree of refinement. They were pioneers, but were too easily excited, and enjoyed too much liberty. As collectors they were prone, as a contemporary put it, to experience difficulty in distinguishing between meum and tuum. Their scholarship could be too creative; to learn to read secretary hand you have to learn to write it yourself, but the next step should not be to acquire some old paper, mix some plausibly ancient-seeming ink, and forge or alter documents in order to augment the supply of relevant information. But to some otherwise respectable students of the subject such activities were felt to be a legitimate extension of scholarly research.

J.O. Halliwell (1820-89) was one such. Probably best known to modern readers from Samuel Schoenbaum’s account of him in Shakespeare’s Lives (1991), Halliwell was a researcher of fantastic industry and skill. He began his own collection when he was 15, and by 19 was a fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society. At 17 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and when he transferred himself to Jesus College his departure from Trinity coincided with the loss of a large number of manuscripts from the library. These he seems to have sold to Thomas Rodd, a well-known bookseller, who sold some of them on to the British Museum, where Sir Frederic Madden, the most celebrated of those closeted palaeographers, noticed that at least one of the volumes bought from Rodd had originated from Trinity. He further observed that it had evidently been messed about with. Some pages had been renumbered, and the new numbers were in Halliwell’s hand.

The museum authorities, with notable restraint, advised him that he should ‘abstain from frequenting our Reading Rooms’ until the matter had been investigated. Halliwell at once wrote a pamphlet defending himself, while Trinity and the museum authorities considered a criminal prosecution; but for some reason they decided to drop the whole affair, so Halliwell was free to return to the Reading Rooms, and the Trinity manuscripts remained there, too. All concerned seem to have been remarkably relaxed about this incident, the like of which would nowadays cause heads to roll. It is thought by some, though not by the Freemans, that Halliwell also got away with the theft, from his future father-in-law, of one of the two extant copies of the First Quarto of Hamlet (1603). Much later in his life he is said to have remarked that if he ever came across something he thought he could look after better than its owner could, he would not scruple to steal it.

The owner of the Hamlet quarto was Sir Thomas Phillipps, a baronet neatly described by Schoenbaum as ‘a harmful eccentric’. He let it be known that he wanted to own a copy of every book in the world. While examining Phillipps’s library, perhaps defective by these standards but amazing by most others, Halliwell fell in love with and married the baronet’s daughter. Thereafter Phillipps hated the young man implacably, and did all he could to damage him and his wife. Halliwell nevertheless went on with his work, much of which was of biographical importance. When Phillipps died in 1872, his son-in-law, to comply with the terms of the baronet’s will, assumed his name, so becoming Halliwell-Phillipps, the name he is still best known by. On the whole, his might be counted a successful if eccentric scholarly career.

Understandably, he had a practised eye for the forgeries and fabrications of others, and had justified doubts about some of the work of one senior scholar, John Payne Collier. Halliwell was still only 20 when, in 1840, he joined three distinguished figures – Alexander Dyce, Charles Knight and Collier – in founding the Shakespeare Society. Collier was then around fifty, with another forty-odd years to live. He was already quite famous and has never ceased to be so. The broad outline of his long career is well enough known; his major frauds are well documented, and although some points remain in dispute there is no longer any support for the idea that he was not repeatedly guilty of forgery and fabrication.

This new, absolutely enormous, and remarkably lively bio-biography goes with minute care into all the questions raised by Collier’s career. Four hundred pages are devoted to a bibliography; the remaining thousand include a fairly circumstantial account of Collier’s ordinary life, but are mostly about books and manuscripts and forgeries. The Freemans make it plain that they like and even admire Collier, referring to him throughout as ‘John’ and pointedly refraining from making a moral fuss about his misdemeanours. These are described in unprecedented detail. The book is a wonderful demonstration of professional care and zeal by bibliophiles who can take all the space they want to express their appreciation of and, within reason, sympathy for, a distinguished predecessor and colleague. It has long been the custom to deplore the confusion he created, especially in cases where some invention of his, so long as it remained undetected, involved major adjustments to Shakespeare’s life records. Some therefore call his conduct criminal, others lament the way he added to an already difficult project the nuisance of having to purge the record of his meddling. The Freemans do none of these things. They enjoy the job too much; they are bibliophiles who sympathise with bibliophily even when it is perverted into bibliomania; but they specify the perversions with great accuracy.

Collier’s first job was as a parliamentary reporter for the Times, and later for the Morning Chronicle. In his early years he associated with such dangerous radicals as Thomas Holcroft and John Thelwall, William Godwin and Hazlitt. Crabb Robinson was a friend, and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lamb acquaintances. His work as a reporter was fairly arduous, and his social activities, along with his scholarly avocation and his own poetry, for which he was very ambitious, meant that he was always busy. Well equipped by his shorthand skills, he recorded most of the Shakespeare lectures given by Coleridge in 1811-12. Later, at the time of the hue and cry against him, these transcripts were called fraudulent. The question is complicated, and it is evident that the reports are not pure Coleridge, but the Freemans applaud Collier for providing something when, without him, we should have nothing.

The authors certify as Collier’s ‘earliest essay in deception’ a fictive account of a Punch and Judy show written for the Times from Margate; the deception lies not in the essay itself but in Collier’s citing it 16 years later as a factual contribution to the literature of the subject – on which, however, we’re told he remains a standard authority. But he could not let the truth alone. His fabrications, ‘usually brief and often scattered amidst authentic testimony or text . . . can be far more difficult to identify than large-scale imposture, and are more likely to corrupt or distort’.

His History of English Dramatic Poetry (1831) contains a fake petition from Shakespeare’s company concerning the use of the theatre at Blackfriars. This, or a copy of it, he claimed to have found in the State Paper Office. In fact, the association of the company – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – with the Blackfriars did not begin till 1609, and this document of 1596, which lists Shakespeare among the petitioners, seemed to establish his place among the seniors of the company some years earlier than had been believed. But the document, ingeniously but fatally circumstantial, also mentioned another theatre, the ‘house on the Bankside called the Globe’, which did not exist in 1596; Collier here was let down by a mistake of Malone’s. The Freemans commend the technical performance of the forger, but here he had forged too thoroughly, as he quite often did.

Even more troublesome was his tampering with the diary of the entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, a prime source of information on the drama of the time. It had been bequeathed by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Edward Alleyn, to Dulwich College, whose librarians evidently, and as we have seen mistakenly, trusted the faith of a gentleman, allowing Malone to take it home with him. He kept it for thirty years. When it was returned to Dulwich after Malone’s death, Collier moved in, and used his carefully prepared ancient ink to add, in his practised secretary hand, some items that lack whatever interest they might have had if they had been genuine. This fraud understandably causes the Freemans to wonder why he would trouble to invent such ‘arcana’ and ‘risk his reputation for a pittance’. It is a recurrent mystery in Collier’s life.

How did Collier, closely observed by envious rivals, get away with it for so long? When fabrications were detected his usual excuse was that other hands were responsible, and that he was himself the victim of fraud. But he had eventually to face more direct and explicit challenges. The story of the Perkins Folio begins in 1852, here described as ‘one of the key dates in the entire history of Shakespeare studies’. Since it occupies 160 pages of this book it will be understood that a summary of it must be hopelessly inadequate. According to Collier, he had called at Rodd’s shop in the spring of 1849, just as the bookseller was unpacking some items bought at a country auction. Among them was a battered copy of the Shakespeare Second Folio of 1632, which Collier bought on the spot for 30 shillings. (It is important that, on this account of the matter, Rodd had no time to look closely at the book; and in any case he died almost immediately after this meeting.) A cursory examination persuaded Collier that the copy – stained by ‘wine, beer and other liquids’ and by candle snuffs and tobacco ash – was too badly damaged to be of interest, but a year or so later he had another look and belatedly noticed that it contained thousands of textual corrections made in a secretary hand by somebody he called the ‘Old Corrector’, presumably the person who inscribed on one of the covers the words ‘Tho. Perkins, his booke’.

The importance of this folio arose from the fact that the corrections, if genuine, were made within a few years of Shakespeare’s death, perhaps by somebody connected with the theatre. It was interesting, if a little suspicious, that some of the corrections were, so to speak, pre-echoes of emendations made by later scholars, including Collier himself; but the acumen of the emendators would serve to explain that. Collier allowed members of the Shakespeare Society to look at the folio for two hours only, and thereafter it proved almost impossible for any qualified person to get his hands on it. A certain Francis Parry claimed, on the basis of Collier’s account of the book, to have been a former owner. He sought opportunities to confirm this opinion, and once met Collier in the street with the folio under his arm, but Parry, who was recovering from an accident and walking with the support of two sticks, was physically incapable of profiting from the encounter. This is not the only instance of collectors bumping into one another in the street, or at the BM, with possibly precious books tucked under their arms.

Meanwhile ‘an amateur antiquary’ called A.E. Brae, by profession a railway engineer from Leeds, had directly accused Collier of forgery, or ‘manufactured humbug’, in his reports of the Coleridge lectures as well as in the Perkins Folio. Collier sued him for criminal libel, swearing an affidavit that he had not, in his published specimen transcriptions, ‘inserted a single word, stop, sign, note, correction, alteration, or emendation’ that was not in the original, which he believed to have been annotated soon after 1632. The case came before the Lord Chief Justice, who expressed his confidence in the character of his friend Collier, but denied that the court had any business with ‘mere literary criticism’.

However, the hunt was up, and Collier found he had implacable as well as learned enemies, notably C.M. Ingleby, N.E.S.A. Hamilton, and Sir Frederic Madden at the BM, who was full of expert indignation but refused to go public. Collier had rather brilliantly presented the folio to his patron, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, a famous collector, whose librarian prevented anybody from seeing it. But the duke died, and the seventh duke obligingly lent the book to Madden. Inspecting it at last, the experts were able to show that the annotations had been written in pencil and then inked in; that there had been an attempt to erase the pencil markings; and that the ink used was not 17th-century ink. Once the actual book was in the BM, the job of proving it a fraud was easy enough. In 1861 Ingleby published his Complete View of the Shakspere Controversy, an indictment that does not confine itself to the Perkins Folio but includes earlier Collier misdemeanours.

Collier did not reply, though he attempted a sort of excuse in an autobiography written when he was in his nineties. Shortly before he died he forbade his family ever to say anything in his defence. In old age he felt, quite rightly, that he had undermined his own reputation as a great Shakespearean, and in a note written in 1882, a year before his death at 94, he wrote: ‘My repentance is bitter and sincere.’ His repentance would have been more useful if he had identified his fabrications and forgeries, some of which are still under question. The Perkins emendations constituted, the authors say, ‘a secret hoard of inadmissible evidence . . . which could be solemnly quarried (as it was, and still is) by right-minded modern editors’.

Collier’s life was strenuous and, these crazy frauds apart, conventionally virtuous. In his youth he wrote vaguely Romantic poems and perhaps played billiards with Keats. Despite an avowed dislike for women he supported a large family by exhausting piecework. At 60, still in quest of a secure income, he tried to get the job of cataloguing the British Museum library, but was thwarted by the great Sir Anthony Panizzi and had to survive as before. His one lapse from professional competence as a parliamentary reporter resulted in the editor of the Times being summoned to the bar of the House, while Collier himself was committed to the custody of the Sergeant-at-Arms, narrowly escaping Newgate and finally getting off with a sentence of one day and a reprimand.

He was an almost incomparably hard worker – though Halliwell ran him close – and is justly regarded as basically an accomplished and original scholar. The Freemans think his Shakespeare edition of 1842-44 the best there was before the long-lived Cambridge Globe edition of 1864. In certain respects he anticipated the work of the ‘new’ bibliographers of the 20th century. He came close to a modern understanding of the origin of the ‘bad’ 1603 quarto of Hamlet. It sometimes appears that it was a simple excess of intellectual energy that led him to produce so many fakes – or perhaps some deep confusion between the arts of discovery and invention. He enjoyed risks and was often absurdly reckless, but he was wily in his own defence and a resourceful combatant when challenged. He was also, on a sterner indictment, a thief, a liar and a perjurer. But he made many genuine discoveries, and sometimes their authenticity has had to be defended by the very investigators – the Freemans among them – whose primary business has been to detect his forgeries. He enjoyed disputation; his polemical manner was sly rather than vicious, and he knew when to keep quiet.

His is a curious celebrity. His skills command the exhaustive attention of investigators as skilful and diligent as the Freemans, and for reasons good and bad his name will always be associated with Shakespeare’s. Other bibliophiles have required the same kinds of critical attention, keenest when they were misbehaving – not only the gathering of Victorian delinquents listed in this book, but, in later times, that bibliographer’s delight T.J. Wise. But Collier has a special place among them, and the Freemans have built him an appropriate monument.