Course:ENGL419/Books/Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnets

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This copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets is a facsimile of a known forgery created by Thomas James Wise and Henry Buxton Forman in the late 19th Century is a part of the Thomas J. Wise Collection at the UBC Rare Books and Special Collections Library. Although it claims to be published in 1847, this booklet was first published sometime in the early 1890s, with a mention of it first appearing in the Philadelphia literary journal Poet Lore in March 1894.The Reading Sonnets were at the centre of the text An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets by John Carter and Graham Pollard which exposed over one hundred forgeries and thefts committed by Wise and Forman.

Front page of known forgery 1847 Reading Sonnets


This edition of the Reading Sonnets is a facsimile of the original forged edition and was printed in 1927 by John Henry Nash in San Francisco for American book collector William Andrews Clark. Clark sent a copy of the new edition to Thomas J. Wise, who responded by writing “What would Mrs. Browning have said, if she had ever dreamed of the magnificent form which would one day be given to her beautiful sonnets” (Collins 235) Although the booklet contains no printer’s or publisher’s mark and only gives the publishing date of 1847, the first page is signed by William Wilkes, who had designed the frontispiece of the 1927 printing.

William Wilkes Signature

The title page of the RBSC copy is missing, but a handwritten note on the back cover confirms the implications of Wilke’s signature, stating “facsimile of Wise forgery by John Henry Nash”. The booklet itself is a small, 47 page octavo that is in fine condition apart from its missing frontispiece. Its cover is quarter vellum and the pages are high quality, thick paper and the overall design of the booklet is subtle and minimal. It’s unknown how many of these spurious booklets Wise and Forman had published, or the exact origins of these 1927 editions, but estimates run from at least 12 original forgeries produced by Wise and Forman to over 250 copies of sonnet booklet.

Inscription that reads "Facsimile of T Wise forgery by John Henry Nash, signed by William Wilkes, missing front cover"

Origin Stories

The Original 1850 edition of Sonnets from the Portuguese

Sonnets from the Portuguese came from one of the most celebrated literary love stories in English history. Elizabeth Barrett was a hugely popular and widely respected poet and author. Robert Browning, after reading her publication Poems in 1844, began courting the six years older Barrett. Fearing her father’s disapproval they courted and married in secret. After being disowned by her family Robert and Elizabeth moved to Italy, where she lived for the remained of her life. Sonnets from the Portuguese was written during their courtship and the sentiments of the sonnets change and evolve with their relationship. Barrett Browning was insecure about the deeply personal nature of these poems and did not show them to Robert until 1849, after the birth of their son. Robert Browning acknowledges, in an 1864 letter to Leigh Hunt, that Elizabeth had shown him her poems, while living in Florence, after he said “something against putting one’s love into verse” (Wall) and, after reading them, he had persuaded her to publish them. Being self-conscious about the intimate nature of the sonnets Barrett Browning titled the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese referencing the work of 16th Century poet Luis de Camões, who she admired, as well as the pet name Browning had for her, his little Portuguese. In addition to the cryptic title, Barrett Browning quietly published the poems within the second edition of Poems, released in 1850. They were met with huge success which was mostly due to the celebrity surrounding the Brownings and the interest in their love affair, as opposed to their literary merit.

The Forgery

Although the above description is true, the following account of the origin of the Sonnets from the Portuguese is far more romantic. Edmund Gosse, a prominent figure in the literary community at the time, first told the “pretty episode of literary history” in the introduction to his 1894 edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets. In it he paints an idyllic picture of the newly married Brownings living in Pisa when one morning, after breakfast, Robert was looking out the window at the crowds below when Elizabeth came up behind him. Without letting him turn around she pushed a packet of papers into his back pocket and told him to read them and if he did not like them, to tear them up, after which she fled the room. Robert sat down, opened the package, poured over the sonnets and declared them “the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s” (Partington 249). Barrett Browning was unenthusiastic about publishing them, but Browning convinced her to allow her friend, Miss Mary Russell Mitford, to whom she had sent a manuscript copy, to publish a small batch of copies for personal use. This account was rendered in flowery and romantic language and appealed to the Victorian audience, who were more enamored with the Browning love story than with the sonnets themselves. Apart from being wholly untrue, what is most significant about Gosse’s recounting of Sonnets from the Portuguese is that he states that all of this took place in 1847, three years prior to the first known printing. This romantic tale was most likely conceived by Henry Buxton Forman and fed to Gosse by his friend and colleague, Thomas James Wise.

Thomas James Wise

The Making of the Forgery

It is unclear when Forman and Wise produced the Sonnets; however it most likely occurred sometime between 1880 and 1894. Forman and Wise had used the London printers Clay and Sons to produce the majority of their spurious editions and it was later proven that they printed the initial run of the forged sonnets through this printing house. Forman and Wise were very calculating in their forgeries, making pre-first editions or unique personal printings instead of trying to make a passable replica of an existing rare book. Both men were well respected in the bibliographic community and used their status to authenticate their own counterfeit printings. Wise was considered an expert on the Brownings, publishing my volumes dedicated to detailing their work and was an active member of the Browning Society. After the pamphlets were printed, Wise used his influence to create a falsified provenance. While Wise was feeding Edmund Gosse the fairy tale of how the Reading edition had been published, he was also spinning the tale of how they had come into his possession. His full, and ultimately false, account of how he got the pamphlets was published in his own edition of the Browning Library in 1929. In it Wise states that he received the booklets from Dr. W. C. Bennett, who had been a close friend of Miss Mary Mitford and who had inherited personal 1847 printings after her death. Wise had gone to visit Bennett, where they had had a high tea of “hot buttered toast and sausages” (Partington 250) and Bennett had shown Wise these rare pamphlets. One of the copies that Wise had bought was “old and broken half-calf binding, with the edges fortunately left untrimmed” (Partington 250) and had “inserted the manuscript of the additional sonnet, Future and Past, which had been sent by Mrs. Browning to Miss Mitford to complete the series of forty four.” (Partington 250). Wise goes on to say that he paid £25 for two copies of the sonnets and recommended the remaining ten to twelve pamphlets to a number of acquaintances, including Forman and Gosse, who all purchased them for £10 each. Although incredibly detailed, this entire story was a fabrication and would prove to be quite the "sticky wicket" for Wise once the forgeries were exposed. In addition to being highly elaborate, these fabricated stories and the involvement of Gosse caused the partnership between Wise and Forman to sour.

Henry Buxton Forman

An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets and the Exposure of a Forgery

Although there had been a number of suspicions raised over the authenticity of a number of Wise and Forman’s forgeries, everything came to a head with the publication of John Carter and Graham Pollard’s An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets in 1934. Pollard and Carter were both London based antiquarian booksellers and collectors. They met at a party where they discussed some of the peculiarities surrounding the Reading Sonnets and decided to investigate the matter further. A copy of the Reading Sonnets was listed in the library catalogue of a Mr. Herbert Gorfin, who, unbeknownst to him, had a number of spurious texts in his collection. After Pollard and Carter interviewed him, they began to suspect a larger conspiracy, especially after learning all the suspect texts had been sold to Gorfin by Thomas Wise and that Gorfin was in fact Wise’s former assistant. The gentlemen now had serious doubts about the legitimacy of the text, but what they needed was proof.

Negative Evidence

As stated above, Wise and Forman had used their positions in the literary community to authenticate the many forgeries they created. This included planting the stories of the Sonnet’s publication, as well as their discovery. Unfortunately for the forgers, there were a number a inconsistencies that raised a critical eyebrow from Carter and Pollard. First, none of the Reading copies had inscriptions. This by no means proves they are fakes, but it is incredibly unlikely that none of the editions were ever signed by the author, considering the personal nature of the subject, or by anyone earlier that 1894. Secondly, there were no copies of the Reading edition in the Browning Personal Collection, despite the fact that they had presentation copies of every other piece of work. Again, it is highly unlikely that, given the poems sentimental value and immense popularity, Browning would not have procured a personal copy. Third, there is no commentary, marginalia or inscriptions of any kind that date earlier that the 1890s. Fourth, how did Miss Mitford have ten to twelve copies of the poem to pass on to W.C. Bennett? Would she not have distributed them amongst the literary community or libraries? And finally, all the known copies were in modern binding. Although rebinding in elaborate red and blue morocco bindings was very popular in Victorian times, none of the copies had trimmed edges, indicative of rebinding. While all of the evidence casts serious doubt on the validity of the 1847 Sonnets, it was all circumstantial and not enough to discredit the publication.

Front cover of 1934 An Enquiry into the Nautre of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets

Positive Evidence

Paper Evidence

Carter and Pollard used paper analysis, a relatively new method, in an attempt to accurately date the Reading Sonnets. They go into great detail about the history of paper in England in order to establish a publication timeline. Prior to 1861, rag material was used exclusively in paper production in England. Running parallel with the explosion of print culture in the late 19th Century was the rapid development of paper technologies. From 1860-1870, a long coarse straw native to Spain and North Africa called Esparto was used in paper production. Following that, until 1880, mechanical wood, or ground wood pulp, was the primary material used. And from 1880 till 1890 wood cellulose was the main material used in paper production. To create wood cellulose, chemicals, such as sulphates and acids, were introduced to break down the raw material. All of these types of paper material looked unique under a microscopic lens and Carter and Pollard managed to obtain the corner edge of a leaf from Flora Livingstone, who openly despised Thomas Wise. The results explicitly show that the paper on which the supposed 1847 Sonnets From the Portuguese was printed was manufactured no earlier than 1874 and was primarily composed of wood cellulose.

Typographic Evidence

Carter and Pollard were lucky enough to be aided by typography giant Stanley Morrison, who early on in the investigation pointed out that f,j, and question mark were highly suspect. The f and the j were both distinctly kernless typefaces. A kerned letter has a portion of the face of the letter that extends beyond its body and as typography developed many printers began using kernless fonts because of their aesthetic value and their durability. Unfortunately for Wise and Forman, kernless fonts were not readily available on the British market until the 1880s. More damning was the questionable question mark which did not match the rest of the font of the text. Carter and Pollard, with their keen eyes and suspicions aroused found a publication with the same typeface, the 1893 reprinting of Alaric at Rome by Thomas James Wise. Wise had had it printed at Clay and Sons and when Carter and Pollard confronted the printers they willingly admitted that they had published the 1847 Sonnets, although they denied knowing it was a forgery. The font they had been using was Long Primer 3 cast by P.M. Shanks and Co in 1873 and in 1877 the question mark had been damaged and the printers replaced it with the question mark from Long Primer 28 from Miller and Richard. This entirely unique hybrid font was used from 1877 till 1893. Although this evidence proved the Reading Sonnets to be outright forgeries, it was not enough to lay the blame on Wise because Clay and Sons had destroyed all their records in 1911.

The Disgrace of Thomas Wise and the Legacy of the Sonnets

British Museum's alteration to Wise's Bibliography

After being confronted with irrefutable physical evidence weeks prior to the publication of An Enquiry, Wise began to panic and backpedal. He immediately went to Gorfin to keep him from telling Carter and Pollard where he had obtained the forged material and asked him to implicate Henry Buxton Forman, who had died 17 years earlier. Unfortunately for Wise, Gorfin was unsympathetic to his former employer and went so far as to show Carter and Pollard the 20 year old receipts he had kept documenting the sale of the forgeries from Wise. Realizing the effects this book could have, Wise took wrote an open letter to the Times Literary Supplement. In it he acknowledges contradiction between the story told by origin story told by Gosse and Browning’s own letters, stating “were it not that Browning was notoriously inaccurate when speaking of his wife’s work” (Carter 380). He also attempts to explain his own account of purchasing the pamphlets from W.C. Bennett, saying that he had been confused in his recollections and had actually purchased a book of Bennett’s own poetry that day. In the article he reluctantly admitted that he “may be driven to the conclusion that the 1847 book is not authentic” (Carter 380). Regardless of whether or not people believed him, his status as one of the preeminent bibliographers of the 19th Century Literature was forever tarnished. The British Museum went so far as to manipulate their copies of Wise’s Browning bibliography, adding a “not” into the sentence “By Dr. Bennett it was sold to me”, making it “by Dr. Bennett it was not sold to me”. The closest Wise came to a confession was a correspondence between himself and Forman which stated “we print The Last Tournament in 1896 and want “someone to think” it was printed in 1871!” (Collins 121) which was uncovered in 1835. However for reasons unknown the owner would not allow the letter to be published for over ten years and it’s now known as the Pforzheimer document. Wise remained stubbornly silent for the remained of his life and when asked to confess on his death bed he said, “It’s all too complicated to get into now” (Collins 277).

The forged copies of the Sonnets have become collectibles in their own right, with sales of 1927 edition reaching upwards of £850 in 2015. This would have pleased Thomas Wise immensely, who was reported to have spelled Literature with a £.

Works Cited

  • Barker, Nicolas and John Collins A Sequel to An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets by John Carter and Graham Pollard. London: Scolar Press, 1983.
  • Carter, John and Graham Pollard An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain nineteenth Century Pamphlets. London: Constable and Co, 1934.
  • Carter, John and Graham Pollard An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain nineteenth Century Pamphlets 2nd Edition. London: Scolar Press, 1983.
  • Collins, John. The Two Forgers A biography of Harry Bustom Forman & Thomas James Wise. London, Scolar Press, 1992.
  • Eisner, Eric. Nineteenth-Century poetry and Literary Celebrity. Great Britain: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
  • Fakes and Frauds Varieties of Deception in Print & Manuscript. Ed. Myers, Robin and Micheal Harris. Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies, 1989.
  • “First Editions of T.J. Wise” The New Yorker 10 November 1962: 168-171.
  • Foxon, D.F. “Thomas J. Wise and Pre-Restoration Drama” London: London Bibliographical Society, 1959.
  • Lewis, Rodger C. Thomas James Wise and the Trail Book Fallacy. London: Scolar Press, 1995.
  • Mitchell, Stewart. Rev of “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets” John Cater and Graham Pollard. The New England Quarterly 7.3 (Sept 1934): p 602-606.
  • Partington, Wilfred. Forging Ahead The True Story of the upward progress of Thomas James Wise Prince of Book collectors, bibliographer extraordinary and otherwise. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons,1939.
  • Todd, William B. Suppressed Commentaries on The Wiseian Forgeries: Addendum to an Enquiry. Austin: The University of Texas at Austin, 1969.
  • Wall, Jennifer Kigma. Love and Marriage: How Biographical Interpretation affected the Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese” (1850).The Victorian Web, 4 May 2005. Web. 17 March 2015.