The Wise-Wrenn Correspondence

IT IS unfortunate that Miss Fannie Ratchford, in her extensive prefatory remarks to Letters of Thomas J. Wise to John Henry Wrenn: A Further Inquiry into the Guilt of Certain Nineteenth-century Forgers, uses a rather ungenerous tone towards the two booksellers who a decade ago published their scholarly expose of Wise’s publishing activities. In 1934 John Carter and Graham Pollard published their Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. In it they proved, scientifically, that fifty-odd “first editions,” many of which had been valued highly by collectors of rare books, were printed much later than the dates appearing on their title-pages.
The finger of suspicion pointed unmistakably to Thomas J. Wise, since deceased, as the fabricator of them. Wise, a London dealer in essential oils, was an eminent — perhaps the most eminent — English book collector of his time, and enjoyed a distinguished reputation as a bibliographer. Oxford University conferred on him the honorary degree of Master of Arts, and he was a member of the famous Roxburghe Club, the most exclusive collectors’ club in the world.
The main points at issue — the complicity of Buxton Forman, Sir Edmund Gosse, and Herbert Gorfin — have been argued by Miss Ratchford in somewhat greater detail than they seem to deserve. In the opinion of Mr. Carter, Gosse in later years “realized there was something seriously wrong with” the Reading edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets. He is, therefore, condemned by Carter as an accessory after the fact. His complicity in the actual production of the forgeries has not yet been proved — even by Miss Ratchford.
In the case of the shopboy-bookseller Gorfin, the distinction is even finer. He too is absolved from participation in the manufacture of the pamphlets — as Carter has pointed out, Gorlin’s age alone made any such participation impossible. But that he, who at Wise’s instance had concocted provenances for collections being offered to Wrenn, should have had no suspicion as to the origin of the pamphlets he was wholesaling for Wise — implies a naivete which is hardly credible. Mr. Carter and Mr. Pollard, to be sure, had the advantage of having talked with Gorfin. They were convinced that Gorfin, though admitting that he had secured them in quantities from Wise, never knew the pamphlets to be spurious. There is nothing actionable in buying or selling “remainders.” Is it likely that Gorfin would admit to knowledge of the true nature of the productions, when such an admission would lay him open to prosecution for fraud?
One aspect of the Wise-Wrenn letters — their artistry as examples of sales promotion — suggests an important possibility which Miss Ratchford appears to have overlooked (or ignored). Most of the purchases of legitimate books made by Wise on Wrenn’s behalf were in “lots,”or from unidentifiable sources. “As a rule I do not preserve receipts, they only accumulate and become a nuisance,” Wise wrote to Wrenn (Letters, p. 447). And on very few occasions did he send his friend any evidence as to the real cost of the books he was continually supplying.
It seems more than probable that each transaction (with the exception of purchases at auction) carried a concealed profit for Wise the purveyor. Wrenn’s son asserts that his father never paid Wise any commissions. Were any necessary? Wise was extremely methodical in his accounts. Does it not seem curious that he had such a dislike for invoices?
The letters themselves are, of course, the most interesting and important part, of Miss Ratchford’s book. One could wish that she had annotated them with a little more freedom. Of the copy of Keats’s Poems inscribed to Severn, and the Lamia inscribed to Lamb, which Wise tells of having bought for himself, and which are described in the 1905 Ashley Library Catalogue, Miss Ratchford merely remarks that they do not appear in the 1932-1926 edition of the same catalogue. Actually they later became the property of Frank B. Bemis and are now in the Harvard College Library. On page 209 Wise refers to the octavo Deserted Village as “this tiny impostor,” which in the opinion of this writer it certainly is. Miss Ratchford fails to note, however, that the 19221926 Ashley Library Catalogue, Wise having in the meantime acquired a copy, lists it as a priticeps, describing two different issues.
On page 460 appears the following sentence: “I think we shall see this year out with a 6 per cent rate.” Miss Ratchford can make neither head nor tail of this remark. May it, perhaps, not refer to the current rate of interest in banking circles?
These letters form an important addition to the literature of bibliography, and it is high time they were printed. It is too bad that they could not have been printed in their entirety, but it is to be supposed that their bulk made such a project commercially impossible. Knopf, $7.50.