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Forging Stories

Imitation or inspiration?

Snow footprints

Far away, in a Georgian-green sitting room, a well-known children’s author is talking. Through my Zoom window I see his many books lined up on his shelf, an enviable leather reading chair, a lamp directing calm light. He’s talking about inspiration.

‘Grab a favourite book,’ he says, ‘and copy out the opening.’

I write: ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall […] the silver and the glass catching what little light there was […] Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the Hall.’

‘How did it feel, writing that?’ asks the author.

Satisfying, I think. Demystifying. The words which captivated my twelve-year-old self are just that — words, placed next to each other, and in the gaps between them is space for magic. It feels good to write these words. They are so confident, so assured; they ring clear as a glass flicked in an Oxford hall. I want to write more. Could I produce more like them? Could I emulate them effectively? What else can I copy, to give me this feeling of fluent, unhesitating talent?

As schoolchildren, we all knew not to copy others’ work. Jealous arms were cradled round exercise books; feigned yawns were immediately suspect, in case the yawner was in fact casting her eyes about for ideas not her own. Pastiche, we were told when we were a little older, was different; that was about emulating a style. That was a skill. But it was only an accolade if we were transparent about the process, if our intention was good and pure: if we weren’t lying about it.

I’m fascinated by this idea of intention. Working in museums, I know that a forged object – created to fool; sold for personal gain or glory, the foundations of which are dust – is a Bad Thing. It will lead us all the way up the garden path to the door of a cottage which, it turns out, is merely sham: a painted backdrop hanging from rickety scaffolding, the stagehands behind it blinking in embarrassment.

Around the time I copied out Philip Pullman’s opening in the Zoom workshop, I was researching the history of literary forgery in the eighteenth century for my own children’s novel in which – as falsified letters and replicas amass – the truth proves increasingly elusive. In the course of my research I came across Peter Ackroyd’s 2004 novel The Lambs of London, and read it with fervour: it deals with the real-life discoveries by the young bookseller’s son, William Ireland, of various documents signed by William Shakespeare. Ireland is, of course, forging them, eventually becoming so sure of his talent that he moves beyond mere legal documents autographed by the Bard and finally produces a full-length ‘Shakespeare’ play, Vortigern. This play is to be his undoing: his enthusiasm and skill is no substitute, ultimately, for genius. However adept Ireland is at copying, his talent is subsidiary to another’s; when he tries for too much originality, he fails. Ackroyd’s cheeky synergy of history and story is a thing in its own category: a semi-fiction based on semi-truths, which produces real emotions in the heart of the reader — we feel Ireland’s shame so keenly, it is as though it is our own.

I can understand some of the desire that fuels forgeries such as Ireland’s. We always want to write our way into gaps in the world. Partly it is to redress the slight of having been left out from the vast open chasm of history — and, perhaps, disbelief that all that stuff happened at all, if we were not there to witness it. It is a searching for greatness, a kind of yearning backwards-reach into a past that, being finished, is more perfect than the endless work-in-progress of the present. But at the heart of this desire is deception; a false work can never be created in the very best of faith.

In 1988 Michael Davie interviewed Nicolas Barker, then a senior figure at the British Library and an expert on literary forgery, for The Observer. Davie writes that Barker ‘distinguishes the “five-pound note men”, who seek a quick profit for a deception they know will quickly be rumbled, from the artistic forgers […] who seek to deceive themselves as much as others’, of which William Ireland surely was one — though the forger under Barker’s scrutiny in this instance is Frederic Prokosch. A poet whose original work was praised by W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, Prokosch would print elegant copies of their poems for the poets to autograph. Later, he sold these little pamphlets; and when his stock ran out, he simply wrote more.

By 1972 Sotheby’s had acquired 50 pamphlets purporting to be authored by major poets of the twentieth century, and sold them for £6,493. When the purchaser of most of them, the booksellers Quaritch, took the pamphlets to Harvard to gauge interest in acquiring them, it became clear they were fakes. There were eight previously unseen ‘Eliot’ pamphlets among them, which couldn’t be right: the real Eliot had sent the university his work in all editions. Barker was consulted, and the pamphlets were discovered to be fabrications — and not even particularly convincing ones, from a material point of view. Pamphlets supposedly made in the 1930s were fresh and unspotted, their binding springy; some even used a typeface which would not be invented for decades. They were forgeries intended to convince, but perhaps not fully to deceive: they had not been artificially aged. They were created, primarily, as original works of art, and merely given false authorship. The ‘artistic forger’ is one whose own silhouette is imbedded like a watermark into the work; it might not be instantly visible, but tilt it to the light and you’ll see him, undeniable as day.

Then there’s Barker’s ‘five-pound note man’, the one who wants to cash in on a publishing phenomenon and make a quick quid — like the anonymous producer of a deceptive ‘Volume IX’ of Tristram Shandy. Rushed out in 1766 in the brief gap between Volume VIII and Laurence Sterne’s true Volume IX, this sneaky little publication claimed to have been printed in London and pastiches Sterne’s digressive style — boringly, uninventively, but perhaps just convincingly enough for readers impatient for more Shandy antics.

And fancy, around Sterne, was rife. He himself was the propagator of much of it, turning his correspondence with his beloved Eliza Draper into the semi-fictional Journal to Eliza. Sterne had met Mrs Draper in London at the height of his fame, and ‘they caught fire, at each other at the same time’; conversations followed (Eliza was a writer, too); and when she had to return to India, there were letters. Sterne’s side of the correspondence was real enough, though Eliza’s letters in response never saw the light of day. But that didn’t stop them from being written. At the height of Sterne-mania, when collectors were clamouring for relics of the outrageous Yorkshire clergyman, letters from ‘Eliza’ began to circulate.

Even Sterne’s daughter Lydia was at it. After her father died she edited a volume of his letters; finding she wanted more, she suggested that if her father’s friend John Wilkes ‘would be so good as to write a few letters in imitation of her father’s style, it would do just as well’. Some of Sterne’s ‘letters’ Lydia included in her edition were adapted (by her) from the Journal to Eliza, altered to appear as though they were addressed to her mother; she smoothed out kinks and quirks where the implications would have been too embarrassing. She wanted Sterne, but with the rude bits discreetly blurred. In the event, she created a character, ‘Sterne’, who shared a name with her father, but was far more decorous, far better-behaved. Lydia’s Sterne, authored by one who knew him well, but not inside-out: this version of him is left to posterity, too.

And what became of that false ‘Volume IX’? The usurping little book has finally earned its place among the canon: it squats, cuckoo-like, alongside its Sterne-sired siblings on the shelf at Shandy Hall. It’s there now: above his real chair, in his actual study, beneath the bedroom he prepared for his almost-imaginary Eliza — a room which even today is ‘overlook’d only by the Sun’, just as he said; in the house he named Shandy Hall, after a place he dreamt up for a story.

After all, copying — whether from other writers or your own dreams — gets words onto the blank page. It is like stepping in others’ footsteps through snow: the footprints are all but invisible, but the going is so much easier where someone has already trodden. Then, once they know they’re able, new words can hardly help but follow.

Penny Boxall’s collections are Ship of the Line (which won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award), Who Goes There? and, with Naoko Matsubara, In Praise of Hands. She’s writing a children’s novel for which she received support from Arts Council England.

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