A few months ago, a clutch of unremarkable-looking pamphlets flopped onto my desk at Bernard Quaritch Ltd, an antiquarian bookshop in London. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, these unassuming publications would offer me a glimpse into a world of literary skulduggery worthy of a detective thriller. The pamphlets form part of the story of how T J Wise (1859–1937), one of the most distinguished bibliographers of his age, conned the literary establishment with a series of audacious forgeries. Wise was a man of extraordinary ambition and intelligence. He spent his whole professional life at a firm called Herman Rubeck & Co, a dealer in essential oils, working his way up to become managing director. On top of this he was the author of a series of respected bibliographies, and a friend to many influential literary figures. He also happened to be one of the most cunning literary counterfeiters of all time.
In front of me were three pamphlets of poetry by Tennyson: two titled The Lover’s Tale (both dated 1870) and another called The New Timon and the Poets (dated 1876). On the face of things, the story seemed simple enough. The Lover’s Tale is a long early poem that Tennyson had intended for his Poems (1832). However, he pulled it from the collection at the last minute, explaining to his publisher, Moxon, that ‘it is too full of faults’ and though ‘it might conduce towards making me popular, yet to my eye [it] spoils the completeness of the book’. However, a number of friends were eager to see the poem in print. As a concession to them, Tennyson had a few copies run off separately before the printer’s type was dismantled. These pamphlets, dated 1833 on the title page, are among the greatest rarities of 19th-century literature.
In 1870, the notorious Richard Herne Shepherd set about producing a pirated edition of The Lover’s Tale, while also compiling a small selection of poems that Tennyson had published and subsequently suppressed – mostly occasional pieces for magazines. These two works were sold either separately or bound together. When an angry Tennyson got wind of the scheme, he sued Shepherd and most of the pamphlets were destroyed. The surviving piracies are, as a result, themselves very rare. At first glance it seemed I had two of these surviving pamphlets, the first with an added introduction but without the section of uncollected poems, and the second without an introduction but with the poems. My third pamphlet, The New Timon, appeared merely to comprise the poems.
Sticking out in the front of The New Timon, however, was a clue that something fishy was going on: the bookplate of Wise’s friend and accomplice Harry Buxton Forman. After his youthful attempts to achieve fame as a poet fell flat (he once wrote a 10,000-line epic about Devon), Buxton Forman made his name as the editor of a pioneering edition of Shelley’s poems. It was after he got to know Wise through the Shelley Society that awkward, nerdy Buxton Forman got mixed up in the shady world of literary forgery. I headed downstairs to Quaritch’s vast reference library determined to uncover the true story behind my pamphlets.
After many hours, I managed to unravel their complicated history. Knowing how scarce Shepherd’s pirated The Lover’s Tale was, Wise realised that an earlier issue of that text would be especially valuable. He also knew that if the forgery were ever discovered, Shepherd was a suitably discredited peg on which to hang the crime. Wise thus set about printing a ‘super early’ version of The Lover’s Tale, adding an introduction which he claimed Shepherd suppressed in later editions. My ‘first edition’ of the pirated The Lover’s Tale was nothing of the sort: it was pure forgery on Wise’s part. It was the second – and at first sight less interesting – copy that was the genuine first edition of Shepherd’s pirated version. The story of The New Timon was even more outrageous. Buxton-Forman had got hold of a stash of the ‘Poems’ element of Shepherd’s piracy and printed over the title page, changing it to ‘The New Timon and the Poets with Other Omitted Poems’, thereby creating yet another Tennyson ‘rarity’.
What was Wise’s motivation to commit such a complicated crime? I suspect his primary drive was a fascination with bibliographical complexity and a thrill at the ingenuity of his own inventions. Even his authentic works are bafflingly complicated: the first book he ever published, his own Verses, was printed on no fewer than five different kinds of paper, and he produced a separate issue on vellum. It was, of course, the very complexity of his crimes that helped Wise escape detection for so long.
Nowadays – to the relief of booksellers like me – forgery is much more difficult to pull off. This is thanks to a number of sophisticated scientific techniques that can help determine the composition, and therefore the age, of papers and inks. Nevertheless, some do still slip through the net. The most famous recent example was a forged proof copy of Galileo’s astronomical treatise Siderus Nuncius, complete with watercolour drawings of the moon, ostensibly in the author’s own hand. As the known copies of Siderus Nuncius contained etchings of the moon, it was only natural to assume that these etchings must be based on original drawings by Galileo, which is exactly what this book appeared to contain. Like Wise’s pamphlets, the Galileo forgery succeeded because it fitted convincingly into the story of the book’s production. The book was authenticated by a number of specialists and managed to pass a series of scientific tests. Ultimately, detailed analysis of the type proved its downfall. Experts realised that a few tiny typological distortions in the text could only be the result of digital reproduction techniques, not of 17th-century printing practices.
The case of Siderus Nuncius shows that some things don’t change: a good forgery should tell a compelling story and slot logically into the bibliographical record. Wise’s The Lover’s Tale was successful because he imagined the circumstances of the book’s production so vividly and intricately. When pressed to confess his crimes on his deathbed, Wise fittingly remarked, ‘It’s all too complicated to go into now’.