Archive for February, 2006

Clearly the words of the Immortal Bard

“I ha reade thys Booke ande doe fynde fromme same howe cruelle bee the Spanyardes. Tis strange howe differente bee the myndes modes ande mannerres o menne. Wm Shakspeare.”If this inscription were genuine, it would easily be the most valuable item in the collection. It is, however, the work of the notorious 18th century forger, William Henry Ireland. Ireland began his career as a forger to win favor from his father Samuel, a passionate collector of Shakespeariana. When his first efforts were delightedly accepted by Samuel as genuine, William (despite his nearly nonexistent knowledge of Elizabethan orthography and handwriting) became bolder, forging legal documents, letters, manuscripts of existing plays, and finally an entire new play, Vortigern. Distinguished visitors flocked to the Irelands’ London home in 1795, among them James Boswell, who was greatly moved by his encounter with the spurious documents. William writes in his Confessions that James Boswell knelt before them and exclaimed “I now kiss the invaluable relics of our bard, and thanks to God that I have lived to see them!”

Wider circulation of Ireland’s forgeries hastened their inevitable exposure. The first and only performance of Vortigern in April 1796 was hooted off the stage at Drury Lane, and the credibility of the documents was destroyed by the publication of Edmond Malone’s masterful An inquiry into the authenticity of certain miscellaneous papers. Samuel died shortly thereafter, and William’s subsequent attempts at achieving a legitimate literary career were largely unsuccessful. Frequently in debt, he was often reduced to producing new Shakespeare forgeries to sell as souvenirs of the scandal, which may be the origin of the present work.

Published in:John Overholt |on February 24th, 2006 |Comments Off on Clearly the words of the Immortal Bard

Do not bind until Christmas?

This book has a note to the binder that I’ve never seen before: “When these books are sewed and put in boards, it is desired
that they may not be beaten; and it is recommended not to bind them till
next winter.” Houghton’s conservation expert advises me that this refers to the practice of beating the unbound sheets of a book with heavy flat hammers to get the paper perfectly smooth and flat. In a lavishly illustrated book this could have the effect of ruining the plates, and so would be recommended against. But my book has just three illustrations, and was intended for the use of serious readers of Shakespeare, so it’s well printed, but not a particularly fine production. In addition, we don’t know what the significance of waiting until winter to bind the book would be. I’d be interested to hear any suggestions Catablog readers might have to offer; send me an email by clicking on my name just below this post.

Published in:John Overholt |on February 17th, 2006 |Comments Off on Do not bind until Christmas?

Get it while it’s hot

In 1771, Samuel Johnson published Thoughts on the late transactions respecting Falkland’s Islands, a pamphlet defending the actions of the government of Lord North in a dispute with Spain over England’s occupation of the Falkland Islands, which would flare up as a trouble spot again in 1982. As first published, the pamphlet contained a cutting remark against the former Prime Minister George Grenville, then recently deceased, about an earlier showdown with Spain. “Let him not, however, be depreciated in his grave; he had powers not universally possessed; if he could have got the money, he could have counted it.” This relatively subtle insult (indeed, I’m not sure I entirely understand how it is an insult, although all my reference sources agree that it is) apparently contained an even subtler swipe at the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Francis Dashwood, who was described by Walpole as “a man to whom a sum of five figures was an impenetrable secret” (now that’s an insult I understand!).

In any event, the remark was politically inconvenient for Lord North, who needed the support of Grenville’s followers, and he insisted that sales of the pamphlet be halted until the offending line could be altered. Johnson apparently chose to soften the line to such an extreme that it almost reads as damning by faint praise: “he had powers not universally possessed; and if he sometimes erred, he was likewise sometimes right.” Since the unexpurgated pamphlet was only on sale for a few days, copies with the original line intact are rare. The Hyde Collection has four copies of the later version, but just one of the earlier, and not surpisingly, it was one of the copies Johnson received to give to friends and colleagues. Johnson wrote rather wickedly to Bennet Langton, just after Lord North’s injunction, that “Before his order a sufficient number were dispersed to do all the mischief, though perhaps not to make all the sport that might be expected from it.”

Published in:John Overholt |on February 10th, 2006 |Comments Off on Get it while it’s hot