Joseph Rosenblum. Practice to Deceive: The Amazing Stories of Literary Forgery’s Most Notorious Practitioners. Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware, 2000, 370 pp. Hardback, ISBN: 1-58456-01 0-X. $US39.95.
This is a handsome publication, solidly and attractively bound, printed on acid-free paper, well illustrated with portraits of most of those whose stories it tells. Literary frauds have, of course, been perpetrated for centuries, but these are some of the most notorious cases of the past two or three hundred years, motivated by monetary considerations, though some have obviously had deeper objectives.
In order to “authenticate” their productions, which they claimed to have discovered, they also fabricated evidence, letters, docu-ments, spurious biographical details, colourful information to make these items more attractive to collectors, copying handwriting styles and signatures and “doctoring” paper.
A particularly interesting case was that of William Henry Ireland, London born in August 1775, whose specialty, amongst other things, was Shakespeare. He “discovered” several Shakespeare plays, including one of five acts entitled Vortigern and Rowena, which he concocted by combining elements of Macbeth, King Lear and As You Like It. This attracted much theatrical attention at the time with literary figures and actors widely divided in their attitudes, some refusing to have anything to do with it, others strongly supportive. Complex manoeuvres were employed by Ireland: the manuscript and supportive correspondence and documentation were produced in his version of Shakespeare‟s handwriting.
A performance was programmed at Drury Lane, but Sheridan refused to advertise it as Shakespearean and it was staged without an author‟s name. It opened to a full house on 2nd April 1796 but critics commented that Shakespeare‟s writings were “more unequal than those of any other man”. Audience reaction too was mixed and the play failed.
Nevertheless, it has survived (as a curiosity perhaps?) and was actually staged at London’s Bridewell Theatre, in Chancery Lane, from 22nd October to 19th November 1997, financed by Alan Ayckbourne and Kenneth Branagh. Audiences were enthusiastic, though every review was bad.
It is little wonder that Shakespeare remains the centre of so many controversies. As well as questions on the authorship of the plays and arguments about the sonnets, the controversy about his personal life, particularly his religion, may also stem in part from Ireland’s manipulations.
Some years back, perhaps in the 1960’s, the Shakespearean actor Robert Speight wrote a fairly convincing book, beautifully produced in probably only one very attractive edition, seeking to prove, amongst other things, that Shakespeare was Catholic. He mentioned that a Shakespeare cousin was executed, as did happen in the time of the first Elizabeth, not for being Catholic, which was legal, but for actually practising Catholicism, which was not. Many sources seem to indicate that Anne Hathaway‟s family was Catholic and imply that Shakespeare merely adopted the protective colouring of Anglicanism. But, as Professor Rosenblum‟s book shows, Ireland, amongst others, has so muddied the waters with his spurious evidence that the truth will probably never be known with any certainty.
An early 19th century Shakespearean forger whose story is in-cluded is John Payne Collier, also of London. Collier was obviously a much more erudite man than Ireland and combined honest literary activities with those of a more doubtful nature, though certainly his Shakespearean documentation has served to obscure matters ever further.
The book also tells of a George Gordon Byron, who claimed to be the son of the poet and endeavoured to profit by the alleged as-sociation, as well as by falsifying the work of Shelley, Keats and others. His assertion of a family relationship was denied by the poet’s connections at the time, but he was charismatic and had a certain amount of success.
One of the most interesting accounts is probably that of the American Mark William Hoffman, who “discovered” the manuscript of an Emily Dickinson poem which he wrote with an imitation of her handwriting and signature. Dickinson, perhaps not sur-prisingly in view of her prolific output, accepted the “find” as a lost manuscript and Hoffman sold it to her.
But Hoffman’s main target was the Mormon Church, both the Reformed community of Independence, Missouri, and the Utah or-ganisation. Hoffman pretended to orthodox Mormonism in order to carry out his activities and had considerable success in vending spurious Mormon artefacts to collectors of both groups. He admitted at one stage that he was “in it for the money”, but also said, “eventually the documents I find are going to show people that they believe in a fairytale”.
He was eventually arrested on fraud charges and the circumstantial suspicion of two murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, by a Utah Court in January 1988.
Practice to Deceive is an absorbing and highly complex account of activities of nine of the world‟s most notorious literary forgers. After reading it, it may take time to regain confidence in some areas of collecting.