RARELY can a book fifty years in the making arrive seeming so fresh-minted and topical. Biblotheca Fictiva is a catalogue raisonné of around 2,000 items from the personal collection of Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman, bibliophiles and experts on literary fraud. Each item is briefly described, and a magisterial 82-page introductory essay by Arthur Freeman offers an overview of the main themes, so that the book is both a handlist to the collection (accessible at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University, to which the Freemans have generously donated it), and also an object of instruction and delight in itself. The collection contains many treasures. The Freemans are perhaps best known from their meticulous study of the skulduggery of John Payne Collier, and it is no surprise that Collier accounts for an entire section of this collection, including hundreds of manuscript letters to and from him, and first editions of many of the key publications by and about him. There are even some of Collier’s library request slips. But the collection’s scope runs back to the classical era; through forgers active in the medieval and early modern periods; and on through Collier and his ilk to the twentieth century. It also ranges widely across Europe and America. The names one might expect are present—there are fine assemblages of material around Ossian and Chatterton; the Warton brothers and William Henry Ireland. But there are also hoax travel narratives and travellers such as George Psalmanazar and Princess Caraboo, represented in the Freemans’ collection by a sliver of palm-leaf on which Caraboo wrote out her imaginary ‘Javasu’ alphabet. Nor was this reviewer aware of the sheer extent of early forgeries of Byron, Scott, Keats, and Shelley by figures such as John Dix, described by Freeman as a ‘leech on the Romantic tradition’ (48), many of which forgeries are documented here. And this is only to speak of the British material. The great strength of this collection is to put that forgery into an international and intercontinental history, from the Donation of Constantine (items 125–38); to seventeenth-century Italian classicists digging up planted (and fake) Etruscan inscriptions (353–58); to a nineteenth-century German forgery of an eye-witness account of the Crucifixion (1387–89). Forgery, it turns out, has a long and venerable pedigree, and for all its ingenuity there are certain dully recurrent themes, most obviously the attempt to serve the doctrinal and nationalist narratives of whatever community the forgery happens to be taking place in. Many of these hoaxes documented in this collection have proved very hard to kill, with lives measured in centuries. Some still catch people out today long after their exposure. The fictitious Elizabethan boy actor ‘Hal Beverege’, for instance, was invented by Max Beerbohm in 1898 (item 742), and quickly suspected, but he still sometimes has to be turfed out of academic articles on Macbeth. Long-refuted forgeries in Collier’s edition of Henslowe’s Diary (item 967) continue to burst out afresh, given a new lease of life by the fact that Collier’s edition is available for free on the internet. Freeman is aware both of the criminal and of the creative aspects of literary forgery. The generous illustrations show that many of the forgeries are beautiful objects in themselves, and the text documents the human comedy played out in these deceptions, swindles, and entirely hypocritical indignant defences. ‘We delight’, writes Freeman, in Charles Otley Groom-Napier, the self-styled prince of Mantua and Montferrat (and other titles), whose pseudo-scientific Works (3rd edn, but in fact the first and only edition, London 1886) contains sixty-four pages of faked testimonials, including heartfelt endorsements from Victor Hugo, Charles Reade, and Charles Darwin. We also have a splendid (and self-awarded) brass portrait-medal inscribed to him in all his dignities by a cadre of (imaginary?) acolytes. (57). And there is an interestingly fuzzy line between literary forgery, in the sense of intention to deceive, and the creative falsehood that is, as Plato complains, integral to fiction. Freeman notes that ‘for the young John Payne Collier, learning that his beloved Robinson Crusoe was fictitious made for “one of the saddest days of my life”’ (22). But as one goes on through the catalogue things start to feel darker. The nature of truth becomes more contested: item 1376 is an edition of Le Docteur Pansophe, a pamphlet which Voltaire claimed was a hoax in imitation of him but which might in fact be genuine, ‘the protest itself being the imposture’ (43). Many of the great names of British scholarship find themselves sometimes crossing the line into fraud—not just the Colliers and the Wartons, but figures such as Malone, Joseph Hunter, and Samuel Johnson. Even Freeman himself ends up imprisoned in his own black museum for item 1523, a ‘clearly spoof’ article in The Bookseller which the MLA Index unfortunately treated as genuine. If one gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss starts to gaze back. In the final sections, genuinely lethal fake documents start to appear—work relating to the creations of Mark Hofmann, literary forger and bomb-maker, and the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which the introduction calls ‘the bible of the pogroms’ (79). And yet despite this lurking darkness Bibliotheca Fictiva is both a pleasurable and a salutary book. It is not too controversial to argue that we live in an era when common understandings of truth and fiction are under pressure as never before—not, it turns out, from French philosopher bogeymen so much as from technological and social structures which reward audacious forgery, and which encourage both conspiracy and false allegations of conspiracy. The underlying principle of this book is that, given sufficient resources and will, forged material can be collected, studied, and exposed. That is a lesson which seems particularly timely. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 13, 2018
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