13 MARCH 1852, Page 14


Ir turns-out that the Shelley Letters, slightly mentioned as a new publication in our paper of the 21st February, were altogether ;forged! This forgery.is •but the accidental .discovery of a very flagrant instance of a process continually and extensively -going -on. Those who are so much surprised at the detected fact might 'turn their surprise more rationally to' the undetected facts. Mr. Mum buys a number of manuscripts purporting to be letters of 'Shelley to,private friends, and hitherto unpublished. No doubt of their being genuine suggests itself: the dates of the postmarks .correspond to Shelley's movements in Italy.; the handwriting, to all appearance, is his ; the style is that of a literary man. The letters are handed over. .to Mr. Robert Browning to be edited, and he writes a pleasant essay upon them by -way of preface. Every- body thinks them interesting chiefly as relics of Shelley ; for they are not very striking, nor 'characteristic ; on the contrary some of -those -who remember letters which they reeeived from him are struck with the fact that these make no such impression as his did—they are 1‘ not like 'Shelley:" The volume happens to fall into the hands 'of Mr. Palgrave, son of Sir Francis be butterran and archreologist, who recognizes in them passages, tetirlisdam, from a paper written by his father in the Quarterly Re- - siww ;and ItEr. Moxon is told .of the fact. Well, if there is a :fraud, may not Sir Francis hitnself.be in some way implicated, asprincipal or instrument ? Might he not have aocess, by some chance, to these very letters -of Shelley, never anticipating their publication? Such a thing was possible, though not probable ; and Mr. Meson sets about an inquiry. The investigation discloses a systematic -fraud : the letters had been bought at a sale in the office of Mr. Sotheby the literary auctioneer ; they are traced through him to Mr. White, a bookseller in Pall Mall; through him, to two women and through them, to a person who is said to have been long prae- tieing a systematic series of forgeries on the letters of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The Moxon volume is not the only collection palmed off upon purchasers : separate letters have been lodged in the British Museum ; and Mr. Murray has a collection of Byron's letters, which his trust had sufficed to make him -purchase, but his 'doubts had sufficed to withhold from publication. Suppose Mr. Palgrave had 'not read that volume : any gene- ral reader of the Quarterly Review would have been less likely to detect the exact resemblance ; still less likely to be sure that the writer had not seen and used portions of Shelley's unpublished let- ters—a practice not uncommon among literary men without the slightest taint of fraud. On the contrary, the freedom which per- mits the recipient of a private note to incorporate its sentences with his own printed text often conveys a double compliment—to the value of the sentences hastily dashed off, and to the generous brain-from which they come, which •is presumed to -have no niggard poverty in "ideas." It is very possible that a diligent search of correspondence would "tarn up " many a parallelism of that kind. It needed the personal interest and personal knowledge of the re- lative to make sure that Sir Francis Palgrave had not possessed and would not have used Shelley's letters. Even after that cer- tainty in the son's mind, it needed much evidence, which might have failed, to establish the truth in the mind of others.

Meanwhile, a shoal of forged letters has gone forth, ,casting doubts on many others which are genuine.; and how are they to be dis- criminated'? By internal evidence, it may he said. Bat internal evidence was not sufficient to awaken Mr. Browning ; and very naturally. All great writers do not always write greatly; all de- fects of great artists are not at once Obvious to minds biased by anticipatory admiration. Even when we suspect a weakness in the work of a great man, we hesitate to admit it, since it may be ourjudgment that is at fault-; deference inclines us to believe that it is so, and,we are prompted to repel any light admission that he is wrong rather -than we are. Nor are faults of deficiency so easy to detect at once, from their very vagueness. Still less is identity,a matter of instant certitude: -in this day of haste and cursory con- sideration, there are many who profess to identify the painter of .a -picture at a glance, but those who are familiar with great painters know how -many traits it is necessary to .combine before there can be any certitudehow much it needs a leisurely-contemplation for the recollection-of all those traits—bow the 'first glance of the very object before your eyes may be corrected by a quiet scrutiny of the _less salient qualities. Mr. Browning was not slow to admit a .doubt, and he counselled Mr. Moxon to proceed with theinvestiga- tion ; but the fact that he was deceived is instructive. Byron, Shelley, and Keats, are not the only subjects of fraud, nor Shakspere : a mass of forgery goes down to posterity- with genuine literature, a still larger mass of that unintentional forgery which arises 'from negligence, -and a sort of hybrid forgery between ne- gligenee and bad faith. How many biographies of Correggio re- peat that he was:killed by carrying lame a load of copper coin re- ceived in ,payment. The contradiction is not always supplied-4s indeed rarer than tacit adoption. We all remember the dispute on an historical fact at the very moment of its occurrence—the "sug- gestion of •assassination " which Sir Robert Peel erroneously in- ferred from words which Mr. Cobden erroneously disclaimed. -Sometimes the false assertion survives the contradiction : • M. Louis Blanc has made out his right to disclaim the " national work- shops" established by his opponent, M. Marie, in 1848; and yet it is-common to see those establishments called "Louis Blano's work- shops,"—bad faith as often dictating the obstinacy as mere igno- rance : but which of those two statements will ultimately reach posterity in the standard histories read by our descendants ? In this very affair of the Shelley Letters, a daily journal gives a cri- tique on the volume, written on the presumption that the letters aregenuine and published three or four days after the exposure has been made in divers journals, besides being the talk of the whole town !

In surveying any story of the past, it is seldom safe to rely on any one fact, though it is foolish to 'doubt all facts, as some fanci- ful people do : this plain truth cannot be too constantly supported and revived to the sight. It is silly to imagine Cicero a myth, though logic can disprove the existence of Napoleon ; but it is illogical to be absolutely sure of any one statement. You are thrown, therefore, upon the general purportand spirit of the whole story ; the general truth of which can be ascertained, in number- less cases, with tolerable justness. Shelley wrote letters, and genuine letters of:his exist; in the progress of time, these forgeries, even if not branded as spurious, would have passed into oblivion through their own lack of characteristic force ; probably, when evidence appearing -to establish their authenticity had faded, the Robert Browning of some future century would have detected their -want of verisimilitude ; at all events, they would have sunk to mere negative shadows not of much count, and Shelley's character would still be judged by the general character of that mass of writing which would not have existed without the moulding power of his genius.