Monday, December 22, 2014

Literary Forgeries

James Anson Farrer - Literary Forgeries (1907)

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This is worth reading for anybody interested in the topic but isn't really a good starting point.  Farrer seems to have had no idea what he wanted to do other than write about forgeries and the result is quite uneven.  Chatterton gets the closest to a full introduction but even today he's still well-known and read so I'd imagine a century ago even fewer people needed the recap.  But the first forgery discussed (even if briefly) are the false letters of Phalaris who will be a new name to most readers.  (Skip the weak Wikipedia entry and go for the fantastic one in the 1870 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. You can even read a manuscript of the letters that was owned and annotated by Casaubon. [After writing this I learned that Phalaris' letters were a key element in the so-called Battle of the Ancients and Moderns that was the subject of Swift's Battle of the Books.])  Farrer also shifts focus often.  With Ireland there's little background but much discussion about whether the father knew of the forgeries and what happened at the play's premiere.  But for the Eikon Basilike (Charles I's purported memoir) Farrer goes into pages of great detail about minute points - I'll bet almost everybody skims this section.

Still there's plenty of solid material.  Somehow I'd missed Bertram's forgeries of material about Roman Britain that resulted in place names still existing to this day.  (Though Farrer gives him more the benefit of the doubt than modern writers do even though there doesn't seem to have been any new evidence either way.)  I also didn't know there had been such activity in faking old ballads, particularly Scottish ones.  It's no surprise this happened (there's even a category of "fakelore" for this sort of thing) but it seems to have been almost commonplace.  The Psalmanazar story is still somewhat known, thanks probably to him having a chapter in Paul Collin's wonderful Banvard's Folly (highly recommended to any reader of this blog).  And in continental Europe people forged entire Walter Scott and Ann Radcliffe novels.  Radcliffe?  The mind boggles.

One of Farrer's points is that forgeries have a greater effect than we probably will ever know.  The most obvious and familiar one, of course, is the Donation of Constantine which he mentions only in passing but with false Marie Antoinette and other letters he points out how many were accepted even by authorities and made their way into more conventional histories.  This is even more problematic for older work where the manuscript and transmission histories are spotty.  I recently ran across an ebook that includes a dozen (clearly labelled) spurious Plato works though I haven't found much more information about them.  Farrer gives small mention to forged Petronius texts and you'd think a work with that many gaps would have inspired numerous forgeries though probably not for the same reasons that it hasn't been translated that much.