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 process) is at one with their vigilance about bibliographical arguments. Carter and Pollard were adepts of language as Wise himself never was. Fuming and fretting as he soon was to be at these two “rascals” and “cads,” he would burst out, “Mark my words: 12 months hence these egotistic young ideots will wish they had kept their stupid fingers out of this particular Pie!” But Wise wasn’t himself marking his words, or he would not have punned on that betraying word “Pie.” (Printer’s Pie: “Confused mass of type.”) For it was their knowledge of typefaces that had shaped one of Carter and Pollard’s deadliest chains of argument. Disinterested prosecutors, they indite and indict, and such a phrase as “golden opportunity” has for them none of the credulity which allowed the son of one of Wise’s biggest dupes, the American collector John Henry Wrenn, to record that his father’s relationship with Wise had been “one of the richest and most satisfying of his life.”
Harold Wrenn there unmisgivingly lacked italics; “richest” was right not for Wrenn but for Wise, “rich” as hugely profitable and as gloatingly comical. One of the ugliest aspects of the whole business is its being so often fleecingly anti-American. Wise’s partner in duplicity was to protest at a price so monstrous that “I could not submit it to a Yankee!” It recalls A.E. Housman’s words to his brother, who undertook an American tour in 1920: “I hope that by fair means and foul together you despoiled America of a great deal of its appreciated coinage.”
That Carter and Pollard wrote so well is not just a continuing delight but the best repudiation of the calumny that bibliographers are interested only in physical objects and are indifferent to literature. Their anger at Wise rings through a sentence that accuses him of everything except his crowning treachery: “Mr. Wise, by his credulity, by his vanity in his own possessions, by his dogmatism, by abuse of his eminence in the bibliographical world, has dealt a blow to the prestige of an honourable science, the repercussions of which will be long and widely felt.” But Carter and Pollard struck a more enduring blow for the prestige of bibliography than Wise had ever been able to strike against it. Their arguments, precise and evidential and marshaled, did indeed show that bibliography is an honorable science; and their style, their timing and shaping, showed that it was also something more: an honorable art.
The arguments proving that “certain nineteenth century pamphlets” were forgeries had to be entirely overt. Wise had hit upon a beautifully simple formula: first, to take a suitable piece from a published volume and to print it in pamphlet form with an earlier date, thus creating a first edition; and second, to compile the standard bibliographies and include these rarities; then to market them through sale rooms or private deals. Proving that these are forgeries was not easy, but it too was in a way simple. Carter and Pollard’s arguments are satisfying for the way in which lucidity and elegance—once the arguments were substantiated in inexorable detail—themselves served to convince.
Thus, for example, no pamphlet could have been printed on premises that the printer did not then occupy, or published by a firm that was already extinct. No pamphlet of which the paper contained esparto could have been printed before 1861. No pamphlet of which the type included kernless design could have been printed before 1883…. And to such persuasive argument was added a coherently damning range of evidence: that the text of a particular pamphlet was incompatible, because of authorial revision, with the printed date; that it was extraordinary that not one presentation copy or inscribed copy survived; or that the perfect condition of so many copies suggested too high a degree of special providence. “It is, to say the least, unlikely that every copy of such a book will have been preserved by its original recipient with a prophetic tenderness for the pristine state beloved by modern collectors.” “To say the least”: this is the deft way of Carter and Pollard, to say the least while pressing the most.
Of course they were lucky, but then fortune is said to favor the brave. Sometimes their own special providence parallels that of a very recent murder case in England. A wife has long been missing. A skull is unexpectedly unearthed. The husband, confronted with the skull, confesses to murder. Subsequent dating of the skull has now shown that it is from Roman times. With something of the same fortuity (and why should the criminal be the only one to benefit from such inadvertencies?) Carter and Pollard queried a fragment of a letter from the author Mary Mitford which had been offered as supporting the authenticity of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning printing. “But even if the letter is addressed to Mrs. Browning—and there is absolutely no evidence that it is—it cannot belong to the year 1847. The words ‘Our kind regards to the father’ can only refer to the husband, or perhaps to a near relation, of the recipient, and ‘Pen’ Browning was not born until March 1849.” Q.E.D. Except that now a note at the end of the new edition of Carter and Pollard’s book says: “For father read author.” Even stronger evidence that Miss Mitford’s letter is “wholly irrelevant,” as the note puts it.
The arguments were overt, the indictment unmistakable but covert. The name of Wise resounds, but always as a witness, not explicitly, not yet, as the defendant. If Carter and Pollard had written J’Accuse they would have trusted that one would hear that the guilty party was one Jack Hughes. It is fascinating to watch how they persuade the jury of their readers to bring in a verdict of forgery by person or persons not unknown. Sometimes they use what would in more careless writers be a slack bit of phrasing, the sort of thing we all say (“it seems quite certain”), but here raising very different doubts. Of the unknown forger himself: “But it seems quite certain that he was successful in planting the forgeries on Mr. Wise, in bulk, over a period of at least fourteen years.” Or it may be an interrogative that turns out to be at least an interrogation. “Swinburne, in short, was unable to throw any light whatever on these books. This is natural enough, of course, in view of what we now know about them; but ought it not to have seemed just a little odd to Mr. Wise?” Or there is the climactic spotlight, the tumbrel drum roll, attending upon mounting the full form of the man who usually appears as Mr. Wise: “But all this only takes us round in a circle, because from the mid-eighties until after the War, the cashier, manager and later part proprietor of the Rubeck firm was Mr. Thomas J. Wise.”
There is a taunting quality of biding their time to the continual naming of Wise that yet never quite names him as the forger. Yet it is the opposite of playing cat and mouse, since it was not Carter and Pollard but Wise who was the king of the cats. Names are important not only to the detection but to the artistic spirit of the work. There were already plenty of ironies lurking within the forgeries and their titles. That a forgery of a Robert Louis Stevenson story should be entitled “The Story of a Lie”; that Swinburne’s Dead Love should be proved to be a forgery by carrying “the imprint of an extinct publisher”; that “M.A. Titmarsh” (Thackeray) should have been interestingly credited with a forgery of something called An Interesting Event; and that a fake Swinburne broadside should be called “Warning Note”: these are only some of the ironies that would themselves sound forged or planted if they were not in a history but in a novel.
Wise himself had something of the novelist’s sense of how effectively authenticating a pointless circumstantiality may be, as when he mendaciously recounted the circumstances in which he first saw Elizabeth Barrett’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: “I remember that the meal awaiting us was ‘high tea,’ and that it consisted of hot buttered toast and sausages. After [Dr. Bennett’s] landlady had cleared the table, letters and books were brought out, among them the much-longed-for Sonnets.” It is the sausages that does it. That, and the suggestive names: the obliging letter-writer Frederic Every (who was probably the local milkman); the nonexistent Herbert Athol, who was said to own the book and whose name was fashioned by Wise from his brother’s first names; Wise himself, who was early assimilated to wiseacres; and even Carter and Pollard, whose names now echo in their successors Barker and Collins, the authors of the sequel.
All of this amounts to a novel and turns into a Joycean one when Swinburne, in a letter, transposes Wise’s partner Buxton Forman into Mr. Fuxton Boreman (or when in this very note the sequel modifies Swinburne’s editor C. Y. Lang into Yang, forlornly awaiting a Yin). But mostly the world revealed here is not that of Joyce but of James. The whole business would make a perfect James story and one longs for James to have known Wise; the index to Edel’s volumes of the letters is silent, and the best that one can do may be an entry in the bibliography of James, where the doubts about the reliability of the limitation to twenty-five copies of James’s Letters to an Editor (1916) are not assuaged by the fact that the letter in defense was written in 1931 by…Mr. Thomas J. Wise.
Wise was not only a forger and a pirate but a thief. He stole more than a hundred single leaves from irreplaceable British Museum books, mostly pre-Restoration plays, a horrid depredation. He did it all for money, despite his having plenty of it from his business career. This was no genial hoax to expose the gullible experts (the thing that is now being gullibly said about the English painter-forger Tom Keating). Only once is Wise attractive and that is when he is burgeoningly impudent. It took a certain spry gall to include among his forgeries the works of living authors: Ruskin, Stevenson, Swinburne, Morris, and Kipling. True, it didn’t take much effort to make dear old Morris actually inscribe a forgery, but it did have a not-dislikable effrontery when Wise conned Browning into a reluctant half-accreditation of the E.B.B. forgery, or when Wise even published Swinburne’s explicit disclaimer to him: “I am quite certain, quite positive, that I never set eyes on the booklet before, nor heard of its existence.” Less attractive was Wise’s early preparation of his bolthole in case of trouble. He would shift the blame, first, to Richard Herne Shepherd, a Victorian bibliomane who was vexatious but no forger; and second, to his former partner H. Buxton Forman, who had died in 1917.
Or was Forman indeed culpable? Here arises the central interest of the Sequel. For Carter and Pollard had come to believe something that they had originally only entertained: “There was one such man, who is the hero (or villian) of the present work: there may, of course, have been others.” During the forty years between the publication of An Enquiry and the deaths of Carter and Pollard in the mid-1970s, they had been compiling materials. An ardent follower of the furor, Fannie Ratchford of the University of Texas, early had a hunch that Forman was as guilty as Wise, if not more so. That he was no less guilty was proved beyond doubt by the discovery in the Pforzheimer collection of a joint document in which Wise expostulated with Forman: “And we print ‘Last Tournament’ in 1896, and want ‘someone to think’ it was printed in 1871!” Carl Pforzheimer allowed Carter to see these papers the year after An Enquiry was published, but Pforzheimer forbade publication. Wise died in 1937, queasy, resentful, having been eased out—for reasons of “health”—from various embarrassing and embarrassed honors, and apparently saying on his deathbed, “It’s all too complicated to go into now.” The uncomplicated clinching of his guilt in the Pforzheimer document was revealed by Miss Ratchford in 1945.
Carter and Pollard went on thinking; they filled in old lines, and they sketched new ones. What made them especially want a second edition of An Enquiry was the matter of Forman’s guilt. With their deaths, the duty devolved upon the head of conservation at the British Library, Nicolas Barker, and John Collins, of Maggs Bros., the London booksellers. Their first volume is a reprint of the original Enquiry together with eight pages of corrections and notes, and a substantial epilogue by Carter and Pollard themselves, telling in fascinating and colorful detail of their taxing conversations with Wise just before publication of their book; of the book’s reception (the reviews were persuaded by the bibliographical evidence, but were up against an establishment that ostentatiously closed ranks in defense of Wise); of Wise’s evasions; and of the Pforzheimer revelation. To this volume, at once classic and embellished, Barker and Collins have added A Sequel to ‘An Enquiry’: The Forgeries of H. Buxton Forman and T.J. Wise Re-examined.
Barker and Collins realized the impossibility of any perfect congruity and continuity, and instead have sensibly chosen to write their own strong sequel. As sequels usually are, it is less thrilling than the original but it has its own satisfactions. Some of the book clinches old prosecutions; most of it is a cogent indictment of Forman, who had less brutal cupidity than Wise but more literary vanity and is therefore an even greater novelistic provocation. (Henry James would have made something of Forman’s bookplate, archly adapting the folio lines on Shakespeare: “The figure that you here see put / Was for H. Buxton Forman cut….”) A failure as a poet and then as a critic, but a success as an editor (most notably of Keats’s letters), Forman had a perverted creative instinct, and moreover had proved himself a skilled exposer of other men’s forgeries or piracies. Many a tax accountant was once a tax collector; this opposite phenomenon, of gamekeeper turned poacher, is less frequent. Wise was a bully and a sloven, though also nimble; Forman was a pedant and a prig, though also dedicated. It is one of the dispiriting things about the story that Barker and Collins are obliged to tell us that in the end a new vista of deception opened up. For there is an all-too-distinct possibility that Forman’s son too was complicit. Young Maurice Buxton Forman was a Meredith enthusiast, and Meredith was faked by the team. Barker and Collins write newly with the old chilled patient anger:
Carroll’s Love Among the Roses is a more serious matter: neatly dated “January 3rd, 1878” at the foot, its type condemns it as printed after 1921. Worse, in 1926 Maurice mentioned it in a letter to M.L. Parrish, the Carroll collector, adding “the only copy I have heard of on the market was sold at the Anderson Galleries last year for $27.50—a good price for a single sheet and one I should not refuse for mine.” “Mine” does not absolutely imply a single copy, but would an honest man who was to die leaving nine copies of Love Among the Roses write about it in those terms?
The grimmest fact of the Enquiry and the Sequel is the way in which the literary and academic establishment sought desperately to protect Wise, and was prepared to be dishonestly “impartial” as well as to revile Carter and Pollard. But the good news is greater. First, that Carter and Pollard simply won. Second, that deceit undid itself: “The prudent course now would have been to destroy the remaining pamphlets, but the forgers seem to have been unable to bring themselves to do this.” Third, that if there was a malign conspiracy between Wise and Forman, there was as a consequence a more powerfully benign cooperation.
The courageous partnership of Carter and Pollard was itself a collaboration with their predecessors, to whose sporadic but real shrewdness tribute is generously paid: the editors of Ruskin (Cook and Wedderburn), who had as early as 1903 denounced two Ruskin pamphlets as fakes; Frank Sabin, who in 1898 composed a devastatingly witty missive from Robert Louis Stevenson in the afterlife; and (quoted in the Sequel) Edward Dowden, who in 1888 made clear to Wise that there was one Shelley scholar who knew what was what: “You are very good to give me (on behalf of ‘Mr Charles Alfred Seymour’) the beautiful quarto. When a gentleman of the road makes you stand and deliver, and then courteously hands you back your purse, you can do no less than make a bow and say that he has the manners of a Prince.”
To the healthy collaborations of Carter and Pollard, and of Carter and Pollard with their predecessors, is now added the equally benign collaboration with them of their successors Barker and Collins. Heartening, really, especially since Barker and Collins have inherited much of their predecessors’ flexible irony. There is a tingling equanimity to such a sentence as this: “Forman helped with practical problems, as when Horne’s landlady’s daughter sued him for indecent assault, and with the odd collection of pieces that he produced in the last fifteen years of his life.” Or the glancing adverb here: “Forman despised such commitments and scrupulously evaded them.” Like Carter and Pollard, Barker and Collins scrupulously evade no commitments.
February 28, 1985