The Book Forger by Joseph Hone

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Reviewed by Harriet

Thomas James Wise (1859-1937) was a bibliophile and thief’, says Wikipedia. He was indeed. As Joseph Hone puts it in this fascinating exploration of  ‘the most sensational literary scandal of the last hundred years’, he was 

perhaps the greatest collector in the world. He was a pugnacious buster of bubbles, a pioneer of modern firsts, a scourge of fools and double dealers, a figure of unquestioned and unquestionable authority. He was also a liar, a thief and a forger.

There have been literary forgeries in the past, of course: young Thomas Chatterton’s impersonations of Thomas Rowley; James Macpherson’s poems supposedly by the non-existent Celtic bard Ossian; several “lost” plays of Shakespeare by William Henry Ireland; and in the 1980s, Konrad Kujau’s fake Hitler diaries, which fooled historian Hugh Trevor-Roper.  But this was not the road taken by Wise. He had tremendous reverence for great works of poetry and drama, coupled with a great desire to possess perfect copies of them. So far so good.  But as a young man of humble origins, working as a clerk, he lacked the financial resources to acquire them. So quite early on, he came up with the idea of becoming a seller of collectable books. And not just any old collectable books. These would be perfect facsimilies of rare first editions, so perfect, in fact that they would be indistinguishable from the real thing and could be passed off as such. This was achieved with the help of Clay’s, the well-established and perfectly reputable printers who – apparently innocently of any wrongdoing – were happy to create title pages with false dates and places of printing. Wise started with Shelley before moving on to Browning and most successfully to his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose Sonnets from the Portuguese (actually love poems by Browning herself addressed to her husband), were written in the mid-1840s but not published until 1850. This was to becomes Wise’s most celebrated, financially successful and wholly spurious publication. His edition had a publication date of 1847 and was said to have been printed in Reading. To pull this off he had to create a backstory for the large number of these books he announced he had acquired and was offering for sale. He enlisted the help of friends, including the celebrated biographer of Shelley and Keats, Harry Buxton Forman, in creating the myth of Browning’s sending the manuscript to England for printing, requesting the copies should be sent to her writer friend Mary Russell Mitford, from whence they had somehow disappeared, only to be discovered by Wise himself. Collectors all over the world were falling over themselves to acquire copies, several of which ended up in celebrated libraries. 

Wise became rich and was much admired, even revered, by bibliophiles in Britain and America. His skill in unearthing hitherto forgotten works appeared to be unparalleled, and before long he was established in a large, comfortable house in Hampstead with a charming wife and plenty of servants. Book collectors would make pilgrimages to his home, honoured to make his acquaintance. But over the years, he decided to move on from relative recent poets and delve into the old Elizabethan playbooks which had in fact been his first love. These took him down a new road, as it was possible to acquire originals of these quite inexpensively, but with pages missing. Of course there were perfect copies in the British Library, so Wise simply tore the missing pages out of the library copies and got them pasted into his imperfect versions, which would then sell for considerable sums of money.

Wise might have got away with all this outrageous skulduggery were it not for a couple of young men, John Carter and Graham Pollard, who suspected something was wrong with Wise’s editions of Shelley and Browning, and spent a considerable amount of time on what was a essentially a piece of brilliant scientific detective work. They examined the paper of the supposed originals,  and focused in on the fonts, and concluded that they were undoubtedly fakes as neither were in use at the supposed publication dates. Their subsequent book, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (1934) created a huge stir, but they managed to avoided a libel suit by not actually naming Wise, though anyone in the know would have recognised him anyway. Wise refused to comment, and some of his friends defended him hotly, though his reputation definitely suffered. Nevertheless, in 1937 Wise’s widow was able to sell his library to the British Museum for £60,000. It took until 1959 before David Fox undertook an examination of the Museum’s copies of Wise’s playbooks and discovered the theft of the leaves. 

This really is a story stranger than fiction. Hone concludes the book with a consideration of Wise himself: his character, his motivations. Was he, as some have suggested, mentally ill? Did he donate his library to the Museum as an act of contrition, in the hope that his fakes would be discovered? Hone dismisses both these theories, and concludes that, as an insecure working-class autodidact, he was determined to win respect for his skill and intelligence, and to rise in society, leaving his humble origins firmly behind. And, of course, to make plenty of money:

The book world had given him a home and a purpose, and he would do whatever it took not only to remain a part of that world but to climb to its pinnacle. When uncovering the thefts from the museum, Foxon called Wise’s sanity into question. “Clearly there are irrational motives at work,” he concluded. But there is another possibility. Might his actions be entirely in keeping with social anxieties of a man who does not belong? Wise was, in every sense of the word, a pretender to greatness. As the shark that stops swimming will sink and die, so Wise had to maintain the lie. The discoveries needed to keep coming.

This is a fascinating book, and I enjoyed every minute of it. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Joseph Hone, The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime that Fooled the World (Chatto & Windus,, 2024). 978-1784744670, 336pp., hardback.

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