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Great Forgers: Chatterton And Walpole, And ‘Junius’
by [?]

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.