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.

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