Great Forgers: Chatterton And Walpole, And ‘Junius’ by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

I have ever been disposed to regard as the most venial of deceptions such impositions as Chatterton had practised on the public credulity. Whom did he deceive? Nobody but those who well deserved to be deceived, viz., shallow antiquaries, who pretended to a sort of knowledge which they had not so much as tasted. And it always struck me as a judicial infatuation in Horace Walpole, that he, who had so brutally pronounced the death of this marvellous boy to be a matter of little consequence, since otherwise he would have come to be hanged for forgery, should himself, not as a boy under eighteen (and I think under seventeen at the first issuing of the Rowley fraud), slaving for a few guineas that he might procure the simplest food for himself, and then buy presents for the dear mother and sister whom he had left in Bristol, but as an elderly man, with a clear six thousand per annum,[1] commit a far more deliberate and audacious forgery than that imputed (if even accurately imputed) to Chatterton. I know of no published document, or none published under Chatterton’s sanction, in which he formally declared the Rowley poems to have been the compositions of a priest living in the days of Henry IV., viz., in or about the year 1400. Undoubtedly he suffered people to understand that he had found MSS. of that period in the tower of St. Mary Redcliff at Bristol, which he really had done; and whether he simply tolerated them in running off with the idea that these particular poems, written on discoloured parchments by way of colouring the hoax, were amongst the St. Mary treasures, or positively said so, in either view, considering the circumstances of the case, no man of kind feelings will much condemn him.

But Horace Walpole roundly and audaciously affirmed in the first sentence of his preface to the poor romance of ‘Otranto,’ that it had been translated from the Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, and that the MS. was still preserved in the library of an English Catholic family; circumstantiating his needless falsehood by other most superfluous details. Needless, I say, because a book with the Walpole name on the title-page was as sure of selling as one with Chatterton’s obscure name was at that time sure of not selling. Possibly Horace Walpole did not care about selling, but wished to measure his own intrinsic power as a novelist, for which purpose it was a better course to preserve his incognito. But this he might have preserved without telling a circumstantial falsehood. Whereas Chatterton knew that his only chance of emerging from the obscure station of a grave-digger’s son, and carrying into comfort the dear female relatives that had half-starved themselves for him (I speak of things which have since come to my knowledge thirty-five years after Chatterton and his woes had been buried in a pauper’s coffin), lay in bribing public attention by some extrinsic attraction. Macpherson had recently engaged the public gaze by his ‘Ossian’–an abortion fathered upon the fourth century after Christ. What so natural as to attempt other abortions–ideas and refinements of the eighteenth century–referring themselves to the fifteenth? Had this harmless hoax succeeded, he would have delivered those from poverty who delivered him from ignorance; he would have raised those from the dust who raised him to an aerial height–yes, to a height from which (but it was after his death), like Ate or Eris, come to cause another Trojan war, he threw down an apple of discord amongst the leading scholars of England, and seemed to say: ‘There, Dean of Exeter! there, Laureate! there, Tyrwhitt, my man! Me you have murdered amongst you. Now fight to death for the boy that living you would not have hired as a shoeblack. My blood be upon you!’ Rise up, martyred blood! rise to heaven for a testimony against these men and this generation, or else burrow in the earth, and from that spring up like the stones thrown by Deucalion and Pyrrha into harvests of feud, into armies of self-exterminating foes. Poor child! immortal child! Slight were thy trespasses on this earth, heavy was thy punishment, and it is to be hoped, nay, it is certain, that this disproportion did not escape the eye which, in the algebra of human actions, estimates both sides of the equation.

Lord Byron was of opinion that people abused Horace Walpole for several sinister reasons, of which the first is represented to be that he was a gentleman. Now, I, on the contrary, am of opinion that he was not always a gentleman, as particularly seen in his correspondence with Chatterton. On the other hand, it is but just to recollect that in retaining Chatterton’s MSS. (otherwise an unfeeling act, yet chiefly imputable to indolence), the worst aggravation of the case under the poor boy’s construction, viz., that if Walpole had not known his low rank ‘he would not have dared to treat him in that way,’ though a very natural feeling, was really an unfounded one. Horace Walpole (I call him so, because he was not then Lord Orford) certainly had not been aware that Chatterton was other than a gentleman by birth and station. The natural dignity of the boy, which had not condescended to any degrading applications, misled this practised man of the world. But recurring to Lord Byron’s insinuations as to a systematic design of running Lord Orford down, I beg to say that I am no party to any such design. It is not likely that a furious Conservative like myself, who have the misfortune also to be the most bigoted of Tories, would be so. I disclaim all participation in any clamour against Lord Orford which may have arisen on democratic feeling. Feeling the profoundest pity for the ‘marvellous boy’ of Bristol, and even love, if it be possible to feel love for one who was in his unhonoured grave before I was born, I resent the conduct of Lord Orford, in this one instance, as universally the English public has resented it. But generally, as a writer, I admire Lord Orford in a very high degree. As a letter-writer, and as a brilliant sketcher of social aspects and situations, he is far superior to any French author who could possibly be named as a competitor. And as a writer of personal or anecdotic history, let the reader turn to Voltaire’s ‘Siecle de Louis Quatorze,’ in order to appreciate his extraordinary merit.

* * * * *

Next will occur to the reader the forgery of ‘Junius.’ Who did that? Oh, villains that have ever doubted since ‘”Junius” Identified’! Oh, scamps–oh, pitiful scamps! You, reader, perhaps belong to this wretched corps. But, if so, understand that you belong to it under false information. I have heard myriads talk upon this subject. One man said to me, ‘My dear friend, I sympathize with your fury. You are right. Righter a man cannot be. Rightest of all men you are.’ I was right–righter–rightest! That had happened to few men. But again this flattering man went on, ‘Yes, my excellent friend, right you are, and evidently Sir Philip Francis was the man. His backer proved it. The day after his book appeared, if any man had offered me exactly two thousand to one in guineas, that Sir Philip was not the man, by Jupiter! I would have declined the bet. So divine, so exquisite, so Grecian in its perfection, was the demonstration, the apodeixis (or what do you call it in Greek?), that this brilliant Sir Philip–who, by the way, wore his order of the Bath as universally as ever he taxed Sir William Draper with doing–had been the author of “Junius.” But here lay the perplexity of the matter. At the least five-and-twenty excellent men proved by posthumous friends that they, every mother’s son of them, had also perpetrated “Junius.”‘ ‘Then they were liars,’ I answered. ‘Oh no, my right friend,’ he interrupted, ‘not liars at all; amiable men, some of whom confessed on their death-beds (three to my certain knowledge) that, alas! they had erred against the law of charity. “But how?” said the clergyman. “Why, by that infernal magazine of sneers and all uncharitableness, the ‘Letters of Junius.’” “Let me understand you,” said the clergyman: “you wrote ‘Junius’?” “Alas! I did,” replied A. Two years after another clergyman said to another penitent, “And so you wrote ‘Junius’?” “Too true, my dear sir. Alas! I did,” replied B. One year later a third penitent was going off, and upon the clergyman saying, “Bless me, is it possible? Did you write ‘Junius’?” he replied, “Ah, worshipful sir, you touch a painful chord in my remembrances–I now wish I had not. Alas! reverend sir, I did.” Now, you see,’ went on my friend, ‘so many men at the New Drop, as you may say, having with tears and groans taxed themselves with “Junius” as the climax of their offences, one begins to think that perhaps all men wrote “Junius.”‘ Well, so far there was reason. But when my friend contended also that the proofs arrayed in pamphlets proved the whole alphabet to have written ‘Junius,’ I could not stand his absurdities. Death-bed confessions, I admitted, were strong. But as to these wretched pamphlets, some time or other I will muster them all for a field-day; I will brigade them, as if the general of the district were coming to review them; and then, if I do not mow them down to the last man by opening a treacherous battery of grape-shot, may all my household die under a fiercer Junius! The true reasons why any man fancies that ‘Junius’ is an open question must be these three:

First, that they have never read the proofs arrayed against Sir Philip Francis; this is the general case.

Secondly, that, according to Sancho’s proverb, they want better bread than is made of wheat. They are not content with proofs or absolute demonstrations. They require you, like the witch of Endor, to raise Sir Philip from the grave, that they may cross-examine him.

Thirdly (and this is the fault of the able writer who unmasked Sir Philip), there happened to be the strongest argument that ever picked a Bramah-lock against the unknown writer of ‘Junius’; apply this, and if it fits the wards, oh, Gemini! my dear friend, but you are right–righter–rightest; you have caught ‘Junius’ in a rabbit-snare.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] ‘Six thousand per annum,’ viz., on the authority of his own confession to Pinkerton.

EDITOR’S NOTE.–De Quincey is guilty of a slight lapse of memory in reference to ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and Onuphrio Muralto. It was not in the first sentence of the preface, but on the title-page, that Walpole so plainly attributed the work to another. The original title-page, which, of course, was dropped out when it became known to all the world that Walpole was the author, read thus: ‘The Castle of Otranto: a Story. Translated by William Marshall, Gent. From the original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas, at Otranto. London: printed for Thomas Lownds, in Fleet Street. 1765.’

Leave a Reply 0

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