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English Literary Manuscripts

Among manuscript collectors in the English-speaking world, literature has had the most constant appeal; and until recently, when historical manuscripts have really come into their own, literary ones attracted most of the highest prices for post-mediaeval manuscripts. This appeal is due to the universal interest in literature itself; to the demands of doctoral dissertations; to the desire among some individuals, librarians, and editors for definitive collections; and no doubt also to the relative ease, in comparison with historical manuscripts, of selecting an area for collection.
Publié le 29 Mars 2011

By Roy Davids

'Charles Lamb was a man, not a book.' This striking perception by Arnold Bennett in Literary Taste hints at an essential difference between the collector of literary manuscripts and the collector of printed books, although, of course, the two species are not necessarily mutually exclusive and their interest in literature springs from the same sensibilities and emotional responses. The sense of contact experienced by collectors of manuscripts perhaps found its most exuberant and misplaced expression in 1795, when Boswell fell on his knees and kissed the then undetected forgeries of Shakespeare's papers manufactured by William Henry Ireland. Among manuscript collectors in the English-speaking world, literature has had the most constant appeal; and until recently, when historical manuscripts have really come into their own, literary ones attracted most of the highest prices for post-mediaeval manuscripts. This appeal is due to the universal interest in literature itself; to the demands of doctoral dissertations; to the desire among some individuals, librarians, and editors for definitive collections; and no doubt also to the relative ease, in comparison with historical manuscripts, of selecting an area for collection.

Most collectors in this field begin by acquiring a letter or manuscript of their favourite author. This first impulse, usually accompanied by a delightful bewilderment that it is at all possible to obtain anything in the autograph of a writer whose genius has touched them, is prompted by the purest desire, sadly often later abandoned, to collect pieces directly related to personal interests. Acting on this impulse makes over-priced purchases easier to accommodate; gives the beginner real advantages over rivals and dealers; and, depending on the nature of the interest and its degrees of novelty and specialisation, may put the novice ahead of the market.

Even experienced collectors sometimes buy pieces of indifferent quality, through enthusiasm or the desire to make their collections exhaustive. Comfort, if not from a bottle or Shakespeare, can be found in the reflection that the purchase of items of minor interest, or those not at the time fashionable, does at least tend to ensure their preservation - surely one of the justifications of the collector's passion. Many manuscripts in the celebrated collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps would not have survived at all had that self-styled 'vellomaniac' collected on any basis according to reason. The avoidance of the inferior specimen is a particular problem to the collector who ranges across the whole field of literature or who collects within a medium, such as poetry, rather than the papers of a specific author.

Signatures cut from letters or complete letters of a formal nature cannot, unless immense rarities, afford much lasting pleasure to the lover of literature, and are really no more than examples of handwriting. Just as the polar explorer is of greater interest to posterity on the ice than in the boudoir, so in the field of literature a writer's manuscripts in his characteristic medium - the novels of Dickens, the essays of Hazlitt, the poems of Keats - will be the collector's highest aspiration, Fortunately, it is possible, as it is often necessary, to compromise.

At present, complete literary compositions, particularly of unpublished books or long works, only rarely find private collectors, a circumstance largely determined by price and the worthy resolution of librarians to harvest such original manuscripts for scholarly use. The collector may find, however, that he has a stronger appreciation of manuscripts as relics than do many librarians - as objects, not just vehicles for the transmission of texts - and he may be able to secure those prizes whose texts have been published. To be fair to librarians, their choices have often to be taken, in these days when budgets are greatly restricted, for financial rather than sentimental reasons so that they feel obliged to abandon the published for the unpublished.

Such a decision has its dangers, for there are innumerable instances of texts being seriously mistranscribed or bowdlerised, of editors being blind or indifferent to significant details, of alterations and revisions going unrecorded, of changes of hand unnoticed, and other nuances of originals passing unobserved. An extreme and notorious case is Edmund Gosse's edition of The Works of Thomas Gray, which he claimed to 'have scrupulously printed as though they had never been published before, direct from the originals...[They] have hitherto been so carelessly transcribed', he prided himself, 'that I regard this portion of my labour...with great satisfaction.' In fact, he had employed a scribe who, 'wearying of the script [of the originals], and finding that the letters had been published by Mitford, soon began to copy from the printed word in preference to the manuscripts. Mitford's edition of the letters differed from the originals, and these differences reappeared in the work of the copyist.'

The catalogues of auction houses and dealers are littered with corrections to standard editions and, regrettably, it is too easy to find examples of editors whose sensibilities are dull to the finer points of manuscripts. The editor of Jane Austen's Volume the Third thought that the manuscript might have been completed in a hand other than the author's, a suggestion subsequently confirmed by another scholar. Recent re-examination of the manuscript has revealed that it was completed not in one, but in two, other hands. The manuscripts of the first part of The Confessions of an English Opium-eater, sold in 1975, showed a great deal about the composition of the work; and about its anonymous appearance under the initials 'XYZ' - all previously unknown to De Quincey scholars.

The autograph manuscript of a verse-letter by Robert Burns was recognised among a pile of papers, the text of which had been previously dismissed from the canon of the poet's work by his latest editor on stylistic grounds. The survival of the autograph is vital, whether published or not, and the collector can play an invaluable role that impecuniosity may deny to the institutional buyer.

The manuscripts of poets, more than those of long works in prose, afford opportunities for collecting the working papers of authors, since they frequently survive in drafts, final versions, and fair copies on single or a few sheets of paper. Moreover, poems create patterns on paper pleasing to the connoisseur of handwriting. There is an understandable prejudice against fair copies and quotations in albums, although, as with Wordsworth, they sometimes contain otherwise unrecorded, though not necessarily superior, variant readings. The current preference is for drafts and rough notes that reveal the creative processes, although there is a lobby for the author's final version commanding as much interest as his jottings. Unattributed autograph manuscripts offer the possibility of great discoveries to the collector with a strong visual memory for handwriting.

Poems can turn up in unlikely places: the only known autograph manuscript of a poem by Philip Sidney was found written on the flyleaf of a book, and the only one by John Donne among papers that had been in a public repository for about a hundred years. Recently, poems by Byron and Shelley were discovered in a chest in the vault of a London bank. Coventry Patmore was once able to claim possession of 'perhaps the greatest literary treasure in England - the manuscript of Tennyson's next poem.' It was written 'in a thing like a butcher's account book.' Tennyson had no other copy of it, and no memory even for his own work. It was 'In Memoriam'.

Serendipity may lead the fortunate to one of the scraps of paper on which John Keats was wont to scrawl his short poems, and which he subsequently sometimes used as bookmarks. Charles Armitage Brown discovered his friend Keats thrusting four or five such scraps behind books on his shelves, and was subsequently instrumental in piecing together the original of 'Ode to a Nightingale.'

The autograph letters of writers are by no means merely substitutes for imaginative compositions or only sources for biographical information - on the contrary, fine examples rank as literary works couched in epistolary form. 'Nothing,' said Horace Walpole, 'gives us so just an idea of an age as genuine letters, nay history waits for its last seal from them.' Samuel Johnson gave it as his opinion to Mrs Thrale that 'In a man's letters...his soul lies naked - his letters are only the mirror of his heart.' Especially desirable are those referring to the author's literary work or circle and including, as do many letters of Gray or Dickens, for instance, vivid descriptions and reflections. Letters have both the advantages and disadvantages of showing a writer in less formal or considered mood, playing to a private audience. Writers seldom abandon their art in their letters, and sometimes, perhaps because of the economy imposed by the medium, produce in them some of their noblest effects.

A letter of consolation by George Eliot sold in 1975 springs to mind in this respect:

'We women are always in danger of living too exclusively in the affections, & though our affections are perhaps the best gifts we have, we ought also to have our share of the more independent life, some joy in things for their own sake...surely women need this sort of defence against passionate affliction even more than men...I do not believe there is any consolation. The word seems to me to be the drapery for falsities. Sorrow must be sorrow, ill must be ill, till duty & love towards all who remain recover their rightful predominance...'

Robert Browning began his fine 'Essay on Shelley' thus:

'An opportunity having presented itself for the acquisition of a series of unedited letters by Shelley, all more or less directly supplementary to and illustrative of the collection already published by Mr Moxon, that gentleman was decided on securing them. They will prove an acceptable addition to a body of correspondence, the value of which towards a right understanding of its author's purpose and work, may be said to exceed that of any similar contribution exhibiting the worldly relations of a poet whose genius has operated by a different law...'

Unfortunately, all the letters proved to be forgeries, the skilful productions of Major George Gordon de Luna Byron. It has been claimed in Browning's defence that he did not see the 'originals.'

The careers of the arch literary forgers - William Ireland (Shakespeare), Alexander Howland Smith, known as 'Antique Smith' (Burns), and Major Byron (Shelley, Keats and Byron), and the less culpable hoaxers James Macpherson (Ossian) and - the saddest case - Thomas Chatterton (Rowley) have been too often told for further disquisition here. 'Some forge for love, some for money, and some for the glory of having done it' [Lola Szladits]. Some dupe experts; some could scarcely deceive their wives. Everyone dealing in manuscripts or collecting them has perforce been confronted with the problem of forgeries - the clever and informed should not be, but occasionally are, deceived; the fortunate have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Of course, forgeries can be detected by vigilance and observation, and by the invocation of science and all her mysteries. But these are only the handmaids of perception - one must first realise that a test is necessary and then know what is to be looked for to determine the result. Provenance can be important, but it can never be unimpeachable - externals must always be inferior to a thorough examination of the manuscript itself.

Among the personalities of English literature whose handwriting has been forged, other than those already cited, are Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Lear, Charlotte Bronte, Oliver Goldsmith, Tennyson, Ben Johnson, Samuel Johnson, Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Mrs Gaskell, William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coleridge, and Maria Edgworth. Dickens was well aware of the problem, as is shown in a letter to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, written in 1868: 'Forgery of my name is becoming popular. You sent me this morning a letter from Russell Sturgis, answering a supposed letter of mine (presented by 'Miss Jefferies') and assuring me of his readiness to give, not only the Ten Pounds I asked for, but any contribution I wanted, towards sending that lady and her family back to Boston.' Dickens, however, apparently did not know of the truly uncanny resemblance that the handwriting of Charles Thomas Clement James, of Woodlands, Shorn, by Gravesend, Kent, had to his own. So similar are the handwritings that one suspects some consanguinity, perhaps well outside the prohibited degrees. The letter to Frederick George Kitton in which James himself comments on the similarity is worthy of quotation:

'Friday, eighteen September 1896

Dear Sir, With reference to your letter of yesterday's date, the similarity of my handwriting to that of the great Charles Dickens was first brought under my notice in this way: The printers to the Publishers who accepted my second or third novel, five or six years ago, were the now extinct firm of Dickens & Evans. On my story being sent to them for setting-up, the first-named partner, (the but recently deceased eldest son of the novelist) waited personally upon my publisher and pointed out the remarkable similarity of "hand" - his expression being, as repeated to me, that mine was "like a ghost" of the great original. This appeared to me to be so curious a coincidence, that I (who had, up to that moment, never seen Dicken's [sic] writing in my life) went purposely to South Kensington Museum where, I feel sure, the shock was as great to me as to the discoverer of the likeness.

So much for that. But, here come the really curious point of connection with the resemblance. - Whenever a reviewer gets to work on one of my books, nine times out of ten there is a reference to Dickens in his critique - sometimes complimentary to me, sometimes v[e]ry much the reverse. In short, a reviewer can no more keep a mention of Dickens out of a notice of one of my books, than Mr Dick could keep King Charles's head out of his own; and it is with rather a grim smile, I fancy, that I at such times remember the so-seldom quoted line with reference to there being "more in heaven and earth, Horatio" - et cetera et cetera! It has certainly often occurred to me that a graphologist might be interested in the resemblance; but, until your letter, I have given any details to anyone on the subject...'

Generic - one might almost say genetic - similarities in the handwritings of members of the same family or circle can be misleading, as in the cases of John Donne and John Evelyn with their sons and namesakes; the Wordsworths (William and Dorothy; Dorothy and Mary; Mary and Sara; Mary and Dora); the circle of Robert Louis Stevenson; and, outside literature, of Spencer Perceval and his son Spencer. A slightly different problem arises from an inability to distinguish the essential characteristics of a hand and the differences between hands. Similarities fly first to the eye of the uninitiated. An example of this failing is the much-vaunted 'Donne discovery', when the poems and papers proved to be in the hand of Nathaniel Rich and not, as was claimed, of John Donne. An habitual exposure to the handwriting of an admired master can lead to the adoption, by design or accident, of characteristics of it, as was true of Conan Doyle's secretary.

Facsimiles, some immediately very convincing, are (or should be) easily uncovered by the discerning eye, human or instrumental. More deceptive is the contemporary copy, not necessarily done to deceive, where one does not know the genuine handwriting or cannot (perhaps one does not bother to) check against a verified example of an author's hand. Worse, however, are those forgeries that gain such wide acceptance as 'genuine' examples that all exemplars used for authentication are merely other forgeries from the same stock. Fortunately, this problems not likely to arise with post- Renaissance figures. Manuscripts should be considered on at least three levels: as texts, as examples of a particular person's handwriting, and as objects.

In his letter of 3 August 1650 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Oliver Cromwell delivered a characteristically violent homily, to which we might do well to incline an ear: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'

The supply of any writer's papers is, of course, variously influenced by their survival, their sale and dispersal, and (given these factors) by the demand for them. Working for an auction house [as I did then] leads one to believe that anything is possible, be it only once; but it is generally true that there is a direct correlation between age and availability, and consequently there tend to be fewer opportunities to purchase sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century literary manuscripts than those of the eighteenth century, and so on. Except for those engaged in government of administration, like James I, Fulke Greville and Thomas Sackville, it seems true to say now that the papers of no authors before the end of the eighteenth century are really common on the market.

Only six signatures, and perhaps three pages of Anthony Munday's manuscript 'The Booke of Sir Thomas More', survive in the hand of Shakespeare. There are no known literary manuscripts in the hand of Edmund Spenser and only one autograph poem respectively by John Donne, Philip Sidney and John Dryden. Nothing but one signature remains of the handwriting of Christopher Marlowe. Opportunities have occurred, however, in recent years to buy manuscripts of many of even the rarest writers. The poem by Donne was sold in 1972, and a Latin poem by John Milton in 1967. Also sold since the late 1960s were a receipt by Robert Herrick; a letter by Sir Walter Ralegh; books from Ben Jonson's library, signed by him (of which, incidentally, there are a number of forgeries); and a book annotated by Dryden. Manuscripts by Oliver Goldsmith and William Collins are particularly rare and those of Keats, Shelley and Jane Austen are uncommon; but in the years 1975-1977 one letter by Keats and Shelley (also two promissory notes by the latter) and three literary manuscripts and a letter by Jane Austen have been on the market in London. The appearance of three literary manuscripts by Jane Austen (one an unknown play) cannot be thought to make her manuscripts common; on the contrary, it makes them rarer on the market because, according to B.C. Southam's census of them, nearly all the others are already in public collections.

Letters and manuscripts by Byron cannot be described as rare, although they may be expensive (the autograph manuscript of Beppo realised £50,000 in June 1976) and fewer seem to be coming onto the market each year, despite such widely publicised finds as the Scrope Davies hoard. The facsimile of the 'Vampire' letters is, of course, in good supply. Large- scale discoveries or caches released by descendants can for a time affect prices, as was true when papers of Thomas De Quincey came in profusion into the salerooms in the early 1970s; but recent sales of large collections of manuscripts by William Cowper, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Wordsworths have been quickly absorbed. At present there are opportunities to purchase manuscripts by almost all the leading literary luminaries of the nineteenth century. Letters by Dickens survive in great quantity, but are rightly becoming increasingly expensive. Letters to him are rare, because he burned his correspondence in the year before his death. Lesser lights can be distinctly hard to find - I number among the treasures of my own collection poetical manuscripts by Earnest Dowson and Henry Kirke White. Particularly rare among late nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers are the manuscripts of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. Autograph manuscripts by Ezra Pound, who habitually used the typewriter, are not often seen.

It is perhaps worthy of note that examples of the handwriting of the great poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be available by indirect means to the vigilant collector. Many poets served as secretaries at certain times in their lives: Donne was secretary for a time to Sir Thomas Egerton, Spenser to Arthur Gray, Carew to Sir Dudley Carleton, Marvell to John Thurloe, Milton to Oliver Cromwell (with Marvell filling in during compassionate and other absences of Milton), Cowley to Henry Jermyn and thus also to Henritta Maria, Gay to the Duchess of Monmouth, Swift to Sir William Temple and Addison to Thomas Wharton. Thus the texts of documents and letters signed by their masters or mistresses may well be in the hands of these poets. Literary figures often had patrons and may have turned their penmanship to humble tasks when necessity demanded - Philip Ayres, for instance, kept the household accounts of the Drake family at Agmondesham (Amersham).

The making of a great or interesting collection does not depend exclusively on opportunity and money. The choice between the wise and the foolish virgins has never seemed a very real one: nothing of lasting artistic importance was ever done by prudence or prodigality alone. Moreover, knowledge, while vital, can in the last analysis only inform a judgement. The concept of 'taste' is often shunned because it is so imperial and the consequences of its definition are too rigorous and unpleasing. It shares with 'style' a necessary preservation of simplicity and innocence, and a simultaneous recognition and rejection of the overly sophisticated, the incestuous, and the bizarre. Reflected glory, or the goal of definitiveness, or pecuniary advantage - each is a poor barter for impassioned interest: desire is purer than necessity, and is a better basis for collecting.

Copyright Roy Davids (first published in Autographs and Manuscripts: A Collector's Manual, presented on by permission of the author)

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