Review The Forger

Review: The Forger’s Shadow By Nick Groom Essay, Research Paper

Great fakes The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature Nick Groom 351pp, Picador At the heart of this book is a cluster of intriguing stories that almost does justice to its potentially vainglorious subtitle. They belong to a short period of English literature, the late 18th century, which saw the most outstanding forgers. If these audacious fakers “changed the course of literature”, it was by persuading most of the leading writers of the romantic age to regard their fabrications as inspired. Forgery was artistic rebellion – an escape route for the imagination. At times, Nick Groom seems to believe that forgery is literary creation at its most intense. First there was James Macpherson. A Scottish schoolmaster who collected manuscripts and transcribed traditional songs, he creatively reconstructed the oral compositions of a Gaelic bard called Ossian, dubbed “the Homer of Scotland” by Voltaire. With the encouragement of several gullible leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment, he supplied “translations” of Ossian’s doomy, heroic epics: dying warriors, keening women, the wind over the hills. They were revered throughout Europe. Macpherson’s trick was to give readers only the echo of some primitive “original”, to which they could never have direct access. As Groom does not quite explain, primitivism was a polite fashion. Ossian was the convenient figment of a culture that thought itself so polished as to have lost poetic inspiration. Does Groom really wants us to admire Macpherson’s fabrications? Sometimes, as when endorsing William Blake’s celebration of the ancient bard, it seems so. Yet Blake was influenced all for the worse by Ossian’s repetitious and portentous cadences. Groom quotes enough for the reader to see that what was interesting was not the writing but the fashion for it. Thomas Chatterton, the greatest of poetic fakers, is something else entirely. This 15-year-old boy from a charity school invented the medieval monk Thomas Rowley, the scribe of William Canynge, who had truly been mayor of Bristol in the 15th century. Using the scraps of ancient manuscripts collected by his father, Chatterton produced all sorts of lovingly fabricated remnants: business accounts, maps, genealogies, heraldic devices. As Groom says, he recreated in his imagination “the history and cultural life of Bristol city through a Dark Ages millennium”. Groom passionately believes that Chatterton’s forgeries should be “read as literature” and, understandably for a leading academic expert on this writer, exaggerates Chatterton’s neglect by posterity. In fact, “the marvellous Boy” has survived unmasking rather successfully. Once you know that there is no original behind Macpherson’s “translations”, they dwindle into bathos. Knowing that Chatterton’s medieval lyrics are fakes, however, even enhances the charm of their strange diction and archaic pronunciation – “the purest English”, said Keats, knowing that it was invented. Chatterton was canonised by the romantics as the neglected young genius who killed himself. Groom thinks the truth was different. Chatterton arrived in London with his tank full of talent, confident of making his living from writing. He was not ignored or desperate. He did not commit suicide; he overdosed on the arsenic-based medication he took against his venereal disease. All the rest is myth, and Groom headily tracks “his posthumous career as an unparalleled, archetypal, and precocious genius” – or, as Groom would have it, the “daemon” of romantic poets, a spirit of inspiration whom he manages to find almost everywhere in their work. One of Chatterton’s enraptured admirers was William Henry Ireland. In the early 1790s, Ireland “discovered” a bundle of Shakespeare’s manuscripts, including verses “to Anna Hatherrewaye”. He turned up documents, letters and finally a new play, Vortigern. The papers went on display at his house (a guinea to view) and Vortigern went into production at Drury Lane. Incredibly, Ireland even forged an account of one of his ancestors having saved Shakespeare from drowning, and a subsequent deed from the grateful bard leaving the Ireland family the rights to his works. Unfortunately for Ireland, Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone soon definitively demonstrated that the papers were forged. Vortigern became a laughing stock and Ireland fled. Yet he carried on writing, producing reams of Chattertonian imitations and an unabashed, entirely unreliable autobiography. “A striking case can be made for the rehabilitation of Ireland.” The story is fascinating, but is this statement true? The tale is an early episode in the growth of what is often called “bardolatry”, the worship of Shakespeare as the spirit of original genius. Ireland’s father had taken him on a trip to Stratford, recently made by David Garrick into a place of pilgrimage. Here they went relic-hunting – gulled into buying the chair on which, they were told, Shakespeare had sat while courting Ann Hathaway. Groom’s untangling of the activities and bizarre history of the Ireland family is engrossing. Yet it does not make Ireland a good writer. Tacked on to these tales is the case of Thomas Wainewright, “a template for the evil genius” for the Victorian age. In the 1820s, Wainewright, connoisseur and art critic, took to faking first authentication documents for artworks, and then letters releasing the capital in his father’s estate. Next he took out massive insurance on the life of his sister-in-law, who then died suddenly after a supper of oysters and beer (and probably strychnine). He fled to France, where he repeated the trick on his English host. Eventually he was arrested, tried and transported to Australia, his reputation for “voluptuous cruelty” living on via his reputedly gloating diary (now lost). Groom tries, with only mixed success, to connect Wainewright’s forgery with his use of fictional personae in his journalism. By now he has persuaded himself that forgery is literature, and the more brazen, the more literary. When the connections seem doubtful, you get an entertaining etymological digression or a little blizzard of gnomic quotations from Kierkegaard, Derrida or Gilles Deleuze. You have to be tolerant. Groom’s book is a labour of love, but perhaps one that mimics too readily the creative immodesty of those daring, mad forgers. John Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College, London. He is writing a book on anonymity for Faber.



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