The study of rare books may not appear an obvious source of mystery and excitement, but it can have its moments. The publication in 1934 of An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets sent shockwaves through the worlds of book collecting and bibliography. In it, two erudite book dealers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, demonstrated that nearly fifty so-called first editions of works by such writers as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, George Eliot, William Morris, Christina Rossetti, John Ruskin, A C Swinburne and others were either demonstrably forgeries or open to grave suspicion as to their authenticity. They also pointed the finger at the forger (though they did not name him). He was Thomas James Wise (1859–1937), an eminent bibliographer, creator of the Ashley Library (now part of the British Library), president of the Bibliographical Society and a member of the ultra-exclusive set of bibliophiles, the Roxburghe Club.
These revelations had some unexpected consequences. One was that Wise’s forgeries became collectors’ items in themselves, as did Carter and Pollard’s own book and the extensive bibliographical literature that it spawned. A copy of Wise’s forgery of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese was recently for sale on AbeBooks for just over £6,000. A signed copy of a first edition of An Enquiry, in good nick, will cost about £375; a deluxe copy of the limited second edition, published in 1983, will set you back about £1,000.
The book also prompted some literary responses. Dorothy L Sayers, for example, reviewed the book and inserted a reference to it in her Peter Wimsey novel Gaudy Night (1935). Julian Symons, in his early detective novel Bland Beginning (1949), drew explicitly on the book for his plot. Several later novels were also inspired, directly or indirectly, by it.
Pollard left bookselling in the 1930s, was briefly an academic and then became a civil servant. In his later years (he died in 1976) he wrote learnedly about various medieval topics. But his pre-Enquiry years have their own elements of mystery. While an undergraduate at Oxford he held the first membership card of the Young Communist League of Great Britain and presented himself as a person of radical sensibilities. Only recently has it emerged that he was in fact an MI5 agent throughout the 1920s and 1930s, charged with infiltrating the party. Pollard was recruited by Maxwell Knight, the MI5 spymaster (and supposed model for Ian Fleming’s character M). Knight’s relationship with Pollard is well described in Henry Hemming’s recent biography of him. Pollard’s role in exposing Wise’s activities brought him publicity that lessened his effectiveness as a spy and he does not seem to have remained a fully functioning agent after the book appeared.
There are further links between T J Wise and the clandestine world of espionage. After An Enquiry appeared, the full range of his improper activities was revealed. In 1957 he was proven to have stolen leaves from rare quarto editions of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays in the British Museum in order to perfect his own copies, which he then sold to a collector in Texas. It may not be wholly coincidental that this aspect of Wise’s activities was identified by David Foxon, who was then at the British Museum and later became reader in textual criticism at Oxford. During the Second World War he had been one of the code breakers working at Bletchley Park.
There are obvious correspondences between espionage, code breaking and forgery. All are concerned with secrecy and deception. There are perhaps wider parallels with the field of bibliography, which seeks to establish the truth behind misleading appearances in the forms of books. Serious book collecting depends on the ability to determine rarity, to know which form of a book is the real first edition and to establish how many copies of it were published. It was these crucial processes that Wise distorted through his forgeries, using the brilliantly simple expedient of giving them a date earlier than the date of the first recorded edition and printing small numbers of them, which, because of their rarity value, could be sold by his agents at inflated prices. Commensurately, by his removal of leaves from rare copies of earlier books, he destroyed evidence of the original forms in which they had been published. All of this is a reminder that bibliographical scholarship is important not at an abstract level but because of its relationship to the real world, where the minutiae of book production have implications for sellers and buyers, and for those trying to understand how a book originally existed.
A crucial aspect of the work of Carter and Pollard was their use of textual and physical analysis (particularly of type and paper) to demonstrate their claims. The study of the book as a material object is rarely taught in universities and library schools today. Both scholars and collectors have often to learn through experience, from the knowledge of those who mentor them and from the reference books they can find. They increasingly rely on the internet for information rather than on first-hand examination of originals or the use of appropriate bibliographical tools, which are not always available online. Such factors can make the study of the book vulnerable to duplicity. The activities of Wise highlight how evidence about the history of particular books can be misrepresented by the unscrupulous. The training, expertise and experience of the secret agent or the code breaker may not seem relevant to the work of the bibliographer. But history shows that they can come in handy.