Spuriouser and spuriouser, part II

Boatwright’s 1810, third edition of Lord Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers is, as its catalog record suggested it might be, a spurious edition. It was most likely produced not in 1810 but two years later and without Byron’s knowledge by his old publisher, James Cawthorn. Reading about our spurious English Bards led me, disorientingly, to three literary forgers: Cawthorn, Thomas James Wise, and George Gordon De Luna Byron, introduced here in a series of three posts that tell the story of a forgery, later verified as such by a forger, who was himself the victim of a forgery.

Thomas James Wise

Thomas James Wise is the bibliographer most often cited in catalog records for English Bards. The same record that suggested our 1810 third edition “may be spurious” also referenced Wise’s two-volume study, A Bibliography of the Writings in Verse and Prose of George Gordon Noel, Baron Byron, which details at length eight spurious reprints of the English Bards third edition.

John Carter, a book dealer then in his late-twenties, recognized the Byron bibliography as authoritative when it was published in 1933. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, he called it “a contribution to its subject of such magnitude and importance as no additions or corrections can sensibly affect.” However, while Carter could not offer any additions or corrections, he did list “certain points and queries.” It was due to these substantial if polite criticisms that Carter decided later that year not to call on the proud Wise, then in his mid-seventies, to discuss a personal project. He sent his research partner, Graham Pollard, in his place.

Pollard and Carter

Pollard, another young book dealer, visited Wise in his London home on the 14th of October. There, he summarized his and Carter’s investigation into the origin of several purportedly first-edition pamphlets that had come onto the market at the turn of the century, titles like “To Be Read at Dusk” by Charles Dickens and Brother and Sister by George Eliot. After analyzing the paper and typefaces used in the pamphlets Carter and Pollard had concluded they were fakes. And since many of them had been bought and vouched for by Wise, they wanted to know if he could account for the discrepancies. They also wanted to know, although they couldn’t explicitly ask, if Wise himself was the forger.

He was. In 1886 Wise had the printer Richard Clay use newly available printing technology to create a facsimile of a Robert Browning first edition for the Browning Society. Facsimile printing taught Wise and fellow bibliographer Harry Buxton Forman how easy it was to make new books look like old books. Together Wise and Forman, working with a witting or unwitting Clay, forged at least 100 pamphlets until around 1900. But instead of meticulously duplicating existing editions, Wise and Forman created their own, backdated editions of known poems and simply called them “first editions.” Half the battle then was not only inventing the edition but inventing the story that would support its origin. In the case of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, published in 1850, Wise peddled a story in which the poet was persuaded by her husband to first print the sonnets privately. Wise claimed he had acquired that 1847 private printing when in fact he and Forman had created it decades later.

Although Wise and Forman’s fakes circulated until the early 30s, there was already a cloud developing over them in the late 1890s: an American dealer in 1898 referred to an “uneasy feeling” and “grave suspicions” about the pamphlets. It was enough of a cloud for Wise to soon cease production of the forgeries. The laugh was with him until 1934, when Carter and Pollard published the result of their investigation, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. Without direct evidence, their book did not outright accuse Wise of being the forger, but it did nevertheless coolly and ironically place all the available evidence at his doorstep. Irrefutable proof came in 1945, eight years after Wise’s death, when some well-preserved notes between Wise and Forman were finally made public.

And so, after learning from a bibliography about the details of Cawthorn’s forgeries, I discovered the bibliographer himself was a forger. Like Cawthorn, Wise worked from an existing relationship with a printer to take advantage of a demand in the market (though in Wise’s case, there has been speculation about other, less rational motivations—mischief, power, fetishism). Wise even used the bibliographies he wrote to authenticate his forgeries, bibliographies of Swinburne and Ruskin for example.

I hesitated: did Wise use his Byron bibliography to prop up his own Byron forgery? Luckily, I did not see Byron’s name in a list of Wise and Forman’s works; matters then were not complicated by a spurious spurious edition, that is, a Wise fake pretending to be a Cawthorn fake. But my object lesson in the untrustworthiness of books continued. While the discussion of English Bards was free of Wise’s own illicit collaborations, other parts of the bibliography were indeed tainted by the work of another forger altogether.

Next: George Gordon De Luna Byron


Carter, John. “Notes on the Bibliography of Byron.” The Times Literary Supplement. 27 April, 1933.

MacDonald, Dwight. “The First Editions of T.J. Wise.” The New Yorker, 10 November 1963, pp. 168-205.

Photograph of Wise from Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of Pollard and Carter and of Daily Herald headline from: Carter, John and Graham Pollard. An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. 2nd ed. Edited by Nicolas Barker and Joan Collins, Scolar Press, 1983.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *