An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (2d Edition)
A Sequel to ‘An Enquiry’: The Forgeries of H. Buxton Forman and T.J. Wise Re-examined
Fifty years ago, two steady young men shook the literary world with a book that went under the most lethally equable of titles: An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. John Carter and Graham Pollard were steadily brave, for their quarry was a man of crushing authority and of hushing connections: Thomas J. Wise, bibliographer, book collector, Honorary Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, forger, and thief.
Carter and Pollard were superb detectives. Their book, as has been said, comes from the classic age of the detective story, and the present reissue of it (with supplementary material and a sequel) shows that true feats of detection never lose their excitement. For with great imagination Carter and Pollard were able to turn to advantage the very condition that might have made for a muffled impact: the fact that they would be well advised to do everything except actually name Thomas J. Wise as the man who had forged and sold “rare” or “early” paperbound editions of works by the Brownings, Swinburne, Tennyson, Thackeray, and Kipling, among many others.
This constraint was not just a matter of the legal position for them and for their publisher, Constable. All concerned knew that they had no choice but to take risks, and no one was surprised when it was said, prior to publication, that their book was defamatory, and that it contained—in the words of a solicitor—“ample material for Mr. Wise to commence proceedings if he thinks fit to do so.” But “fit” was the nub of the matter. For there was a great advantage, in art and cunning and pursuit, in so deploying their arguments as to force upon Wise the insistence, “If the cap fits, wear it.” Like great ironists, like Alexander Pope himself, Carter and Pollard were the masters of a steely innocence such as could challengingly tighten the net upon the most proper sort of prey: a man of great power and prestige who was at last to be the victim of Nemesis and of her agents. Was there at work a descendant of the Renaissance forger Annius, sharp-eyed enough to profit from “the book-collecting renaissance of 1890”? “There was one such man,” the authors write, “who is the hero (or villain) of the present work.”
The quality of the exposure is everywhere instinct with their simply writing so well, with such deadly, such functional, irony. For example, the sentence that precedes the statement “There was one such man…” puts a consummate weight, light but unignorable, upon the word “golden”: “To look back at these feverish and speculative conditions in the book market is to see that it would have been almost surprising if there had not been some collateral descendant of Annius to perceive the golden opportunity.” “Almost surprising” keeps alive some faith in human decency (Carter and Pollard were realists, not cynics), and “speculative” and “collateral” arrive at “golden.”
The authors’ vigilance about their own style (style of words, of proceeding, and of due …