The Weekly Machen

Despite the brevity of this week’s article, it packs a greater measure of curiosity than its length implies. For my part, I doubt many of today’s readers are cognizant of the Memoirs of William Hickey (1749-1830), a mammoth set of memories of an upperclass English rogue. The real nugget of the piece centers on Arthur Machen’s critique of a formerly skeptical reviewer’s reasoning for finally accepting the authenticity of the Hickey memoirs. Instead, Machen offers an unexpected defense of its validity based on the quirks of the text.

Machen may have read Curiosities of Literature, an exploration of historical and literary marginalia by Isaac Disraeli, as early as the 1870s. Despite his fuzzy memory in 1918, Machen made use of the section entitled “Literary Forgeries” from Volume III for material he wrote for the Walford’s Antiquarian Magazine in 1887. (See A Reader of Curious Books.)

The Romance of an Old Manuscript
Arthur Machen
May 14, 1918

31175526455I have just been looking at a wonderful old manuscript. It is a big, folio volume, bound in worn, mellow parchment, well-bound buy an old craftsman. Within it are pages on pages on pages of old hand-made paper, covered with closely-written manuscript in an eighteenth-century hand.

This is the original manuscript of the Memoirs of William Hickey.

It is so long since I read that delightful, uncritical volume of miscellanies, Disraeli’s “Curiosities of Literature,” that I forget whether it contains an article called “Successful Literary Forgeries,” and I doubt whether any materials for such an article are in existence. Has critical opinion been beguiled for any length of time as to the book which, professing to be written in one century, was really written in another and a later century? I cannot think of any such case.

Of course, this may be said: that there are such folks, which have deceived and deceive still. There was a scholar of the Renaissance who maintained that pretty well the whole of classic literature was forged in the middle ages by unscrupulous monks, but I don’t think that anybody believed him. Indeed, the fact is that the task is so difficult that scarcely anyone has even attempted it.

Augustine Birrell

So, on mere general grounds, I was astonished to see in a weekly paper that Mr. Augustine Birrell had been inclined the question the genuine character of the wonderful Hickey Memoirs, one of the most fascinating books brought out this spring. Mr. Birrell was convinced by some such circumstance as this: The Hickey of the memoirs says that he practised as an attorney in Calcutta, and the critic finds from another source that a certain William Hickey was an attorney at Calcutta during the period alleged.

This is very well so far as it goes, and if Mr. Birrell is satisfied, so much the better.

But does such a piece of evidence amount to much; even from the strictly legal point of view? It certainly proves that the memoirs are veridical in stating that a William Hickey was an attorney in Calcutta in the latter part of the eighteenth century; but it proves nothing more. It does not prove that this William Hickey aforesaid wrote the memoirs supposed to be his; it does not prove Bob Potts.

For Bob Potts proves himself. The reader of the second volume will remember how a joyous party, including Mr. Hickey, dined one day in the City, and resolved to make a night of it, at a house of entertainment in Covent Garden. So they called a coach and drove westward, and as they came down Ludgate Hill, it struck one of the party, Bob Potts, in fact, that the coach was going too slowly. So Bob prodded the coachman through the window with the hilt of his sword and the coachman laid his whip about Bob’s head. Then Bob crawled out through the window and fought “coachee” on his own box, and they rolled into the street, and the constable came up, and Bob said he was the King’s son.

Now, in my humble judgement, all of this is its own proof. It has no significance or relevance to anything in particular, except to high spirits and a good deal of wine with dinner. No forger would think of such an incident; no forger would think of the harsh father in the West Indies who addressed his son, “O thou essence-essence”; no forger would think of the landlady who refused to charge the party anything for the good wine they had drunk, on the ground that her son brought it over from the Channel Islands, and there was no call for it. The forger cannot be irrelevant with ease—unless his name be Daniel Defoe. If the genuine and authentic character of “Boswell” were ever doubted, all doubt could be rebutted by the incident of Edwards. A man of genius might, perhaps, imagine Dr. Johnson; no man of genius could imagine Edwards, who tried, too, to be a philosopher, “but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

The Weekly

Previous: On Going to Brighton by Pullman


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

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