Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Suppressors and Dilapidators of Manuscripts.

Manuscripts are suppressed or destroyed from motives which require to be noticed. Plagiarists, at least, have the merit of preservation: they may blush at their artifices, and deserve the pillory, but their practices do not incur the capital crime of felony. Serassi, the writer of the curious Life of Tasso, was guilty of an extraordinary suppression in his zeal for the poet’s memory. The story remains to be told, for it is but little known.

Galileo, in early life, was a lecturer at the university of Pisa: delighting in poetical studies, he was then more of a critic than a philosopher, and had Ariosto by heart. This great man caught the literary mania which broke out about his time, when the Cruscans so absurdly began their “Controversie Tassesche,” and raised up two poetical factions, which infected the Italians with a national fever. Tasso and Ariosto were perpetually weighed and outweighed against each other; Galileo wrote annotations on Tasso, stanza after stanza, and without reserve, treating the majestic bard with a severity which must have thrown the Tassoists into an agony. Our critic lent his manuscript to Jacopo Mazzoni, who, probably being a disguised Tassoist, by some accountable means contrived that the manuscript should be absolutely lost! — to the deep regret of the author and all the Ariostoists. The philosopher descended to his grave — not without occasional groans — nor without exulting reminiscences of the blows he had in his youth inflicted on the great rival of Ariosto — and the rumour of such a work long floated on tradition! Two centuries had nearly elapsed, when Serassi, employed on his elaborate Life of Tasso, among his uninterrupted researches in the public libraries of Rome, discovered a miscellaneous volume, in which, on a cursory examination, he found deposited the lost manuscript of Galileo! It was a shock from which, perhaps, the zealous biographer of Tasso never fairly recovered; the awful name of Galileo sanctioned the asperity of critical decision, and more particularly the severe remarks on the language, a subject on which the Italians are so morbidly delicate, and so trivially grave. Serassi’s conduct on this occasion was at once political, timorous, and cunning. Gladly would he have annihilated the original, but this was impossible! It was some consolation that the manuscript was totally unknown — for having got mixed with others, it had accidentally been passed over, and not entered into the catalogue; his own diligent eye only had detected its existence. ”Nessuno fin ora sa, fuori di me, se vi sia, nè dove sia, e cosi non potrà darsi alia luce,“ &c. But in the true spirit of a collector, avaricious of all things connected with his pursuits, Serassi cautiously, but completely, transcribed the precious manuscript, with an intention, according to his memorandum, to unravel all its sophistry. However, although the Abbate never wanted leisure, he persevered in his silence; yet he often trembled lest some future explorer of manuscripts might be found as sharpsighted as himself. He was so cautious as not even to venture to note down the library where the manuscript was to be found, and to this day no one appears to have fallen on the volume! On the death of Serassi, his papers came to the hands of the Duke of Ceri, a lover of literature; the transcript of the yet undiscovered original was then revealed! and this secret history of the manuscript was drawn from a note on the title-page written by Serassi himself. To satisfy the urgent curiosity of the literati, these annotations on Tasso by Galileo were published in 1793. Here is a work, which, from its earliest stage, much pains had been taken to suppress; but Serassi’s collecting passion inducing him to preserve what he himself so much wished should never appear, finally occasioned its publication! It adds one evidence to the many which prove that such sinister practices have been frequently used by the historians of a party, poetic or politic.

Unquestionably this entire suppression of manuscripts has been too frequently practised. It is suspected that our historical antiquary, Speed, owed many obligations to the learned Hugh Broughton, for he possessed a vast number of his MSS. which he burnt. Why did he burn? If persons place themselves in suspicions situations, they must not complain if they be suspected. We have had historians who, whenever they met with information which has not suited their historical system, or their inveterate prejudices, have employed interpolations, castrations, and forgeries, and in some cases have annihilated the entire document. Leland’s invaluable manuscripts were left at his death in the confused state in which the mind of the writer had sunk, overcome by his incessant labours, when this royal antiquary was employed by Henry the Eighth to write our national antiquities. His scattered manuscripts were long a common prey to many who never acknowledged their fountain head; among these suppressors and dilapidators pre-eminently stands the crafty Italian Polydore Vergil, who not only drew largely from this source, but, to cover the robbery, did not omit to depreciate the father of our antiquities — an act of a piece with the character of the man, who is said to have collected and burnt a greater number of historical MSS. than would have loaded a wagon, to prevent the detection of the numerous fabrications in his history of England, which was composed to gratify Mary and the Catholic cause.

The Harleian manuscript, 7379, is a collection of state-letters. This MS. has four leaves entirely torn out, and is accompanied by this extraordinary memorandum, signed by the principal librarian.

“Upon examination of this book, Nov. 12, 1764, these four last leaves were torn out.


“Mem. Nov. 12, sent down to Mrs. Macaulay.”

As no memorandum of the name of any student to whom a manuscript is delivered for his researches was ever made, before or since, or in the nature of things will ever be, this memorandum must involve our female historian in the obloquy of this dilapidation.1 Such dishonest practices of party feeling, indeed, are not peculiar to any party. In Roscoe’s “Illustrations” of his Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici, we discover that Fabroni, whose character scarcely admits of suspicion, appears to have known of the existence of an unpublished letter of Sixtus IV., which involves that pontiff deeply in the assassination projected by the Pazzi; but he carefully suppressed its notice: yet, in his conscience, he could not avoid alluding to such documents, which he concealed by his silence. Roscoe has apologised for Fabroni overlooking this decisive evidence of the guilt of the hypocritical pontiff in the mass of manuscripts; a circumstance not likely to have occurred, however, to this laborious historical inquirer. All party feeling is the same active spirit with an opposite direction. We have a remarkable case, where a most interesting historical production has been silently annihilated by the consent of both parties. There once existed an important diary of a very extraordinary character, Sir George Saville, afterwards Marquis of Halifax. This master-spirit, for such I am inclined to consider the author of the little book of “Maxims and Reflections,” with a philosophical indifference, appears to have held in equal contempt all the factions of his times, and consequently has often incurred their severe censures. Among other things, the Marquis of Halifax had noted down the conversation he had had with Charles the Second, and the great and busy characters of the age. Of this curious secret history there existed two copies, and the noble writer imagined that by this means he had carefully secured their existence; yet both copies were destroyed from opposite motives; the one at the instigation of Pope, who was alarmed at finding some of the catholic intrigues of the court developed; and the other at the suggestion of a noble friend, who was equally shocked at discovering that his party, the Revolutionists, had sometimes practised mean and dishonourable deceptions. It is in these legacies of honourable men, of whatever party they may be, that we expect to find truth and sincerity; but thus it happens that the last hope of posterity is frustrated by the artifices, or the malignity, of these party-passions. Pulteney, afterwards the Earl of Bath, had also prepared memoirs of his times, which he proposed to confide to Dr. Douglas, bishop of Salisbury, to be composed by the bishop; but his lordship’s heir, the General, insisted on destroying these authentic documents, of the value of which we have a notion by one of those conversations which the earl was in the habit of indulging with Hooke, whom he at that time appears to have intended for his historian. The Earl of Anglesea’s MS. History of the Troubles of Ireland, and also a Diary of his own Times, have been suppressed; a busy observer of his contemporaries, his tale would materially have assisted a later historian.

The same hostility to manuscripts, as may be easily imagined, has occurred, perhaps more frequently, on the continent. I shall furnish one considerable fact. A French canon, Claude Joly, a bold and learned writer, had finished an ample life of Erasmus, which included a history of the restoration of literature at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. Colomiés tells us, that the author had read over the works of Erasmus seven times; we have positive evidence that the MS. was finished for the press: the Cardinal do Noailles would examine the work himself; this important history was not only suppressed, but the hope entertained, of finding it among the cardinal’s papers, was never realised.

These are instances of the annihilation of history; but there is a partial suppression, or castration of passages, equally fatal to the cause of truth; a practice too prevalent among the first editors of memoirs. By such deprivations of the text we have lost important truths, while, in some cases, by interpolations, we have been loaded with the fictions of a party. Original memoirs, when published, should now be deposited at that great institution, consecrated to our national history — the British Museum, to be verified at all times. In Lord Herbert’s history of Henry the Eighth, I find, by a manuscript note, that several things were not permitted to be printed, and that the original MS. was supposed to be in Mr. Sheldon’s custody, in 1687. Camden told Sir Robert Filmore that he was not suffered to print all his annals of Elizabeth; but he providently sent these expurgated passages to De Thou, who printed them faithfully; and it is remarkable that De Thou himself used the same precaution in the continuation of his own history. We like remote truths, but truths too near us never fail to alarm ourselves, our connexions, and our party. Milton, in composing his History of England, introduced, in the third book, a very remarkable digression, on the characters of the Long Parliament; a most animated description of a class of political adventurers with whom modern history has presented many parallels. From tenderness to a party then imagined to be subdued, it was struck out by command, nor do I find it restituted in Kennett’s Collection of English Histories. This admirable and exquisite delineation has been preserved in a pamphlet printed in 1681, which has fortunately exhibited one of the warmest pictures in design and colouring by a master’s hand. One of our most important volumes of secret history, “Whitelocke’s Memorials,” was published by Arthur, Earl of Anglesea, in 1682, who took considerable liberties with the manuscript; another edition appeared in 1732, which restored the many important passages through which the earl appears to have struck his castrating pen. The restitution of the castrated passages has not much increased the magnitude of this folio volume; for the omissions usually consisted of a characteristic stroke, or short critical opinion, which did not harmonise with the private feelings of the Earl of Anglesea. In consequence of the volume not being much enlarged to the eye, and being unaccompanied by a single line of preface to inform us of the value of this more complete edition, the booksellers imagine that there can be no material difference between the two editions, and wonder at the bibliopolical mystery that they can afford to sell the edition of 1682 at ten shillings, and have five guineas for the edition of 1732! Hume who, I have been told, wrote his history usually on a sofa, with the epicurean indolence of his fine genius, always refers to the old truncated and faithless edition of Whitelocke — so little in his day did the critical history of books enter into the studies of authors, or such was the carelessness of our historian! There is more philosophy in editions than some philosophers are aware of. Perhaps most “Memoirs” have been unfaithfully published, “curtailed of their fair proportions;” and not a few might be noticed which subsequent editors have restored to their original state, by uniting their dislocated limbs. Unquestionably Passion has sometimes annihilated manuscripts, and tamely revenged itself on the papers of hated writers! Louis the Fourteenth, with his own hands, after the death of Fénélon, burnt all the manuscripts which the Duke of Burgundy had preserved of his preceptor.

As an example of the suppressors and dilapidators of manuscripts, I shall give an extraordinary fact concerning Louis the Fourteenth, more in his favour. His character appears, like some other historical personages, equally disguised by adulation and calumny. That monarch was not the Nero which his revocation of the edict of Nantes made him seem to the French protestants. He was far from approving of the violent measures of his catholic clergy. This opinion of that sovereign was, however, carefully suppressed, when his “Instructions to the Dauphin” were first published. It is now ascertained that Louis the Fourteenth was for many years equally zealous and industrious; and, among other useful attempts, composed an elaborate “Discours” for the dauphin for his future conduct. The king gave his manuscript to Pelisson to revise; but after the revision our royal writer frequently inserted additional paragraphs. The work first appeared in an anonymous “Récueil d’Opuscules Littéraires, Amsterdam, 1767,” which Barbier, in his “Anonymes,” tells us was “rédigé par Pelisson; le tout publié par l’Abbé Olivet.” When at length the printed work was collated with the manuscript original, several suppressions of the royal sentiments appeared; and the editors, too catholic, had, with more particular caution, thrown aside what clearly showed Louis the Fourteenth was far from approving of the violences used against the protestants. The following passage was entirely omitted: “It seems to me, my son, that those who employ extreme and violent remedies do not know the nature of the evil, occasioned in part by heated minds, which, left to themselves, would insensibly be extinguished, rather than rekindle them afresh by the force of contradiction; above all, when the corruption is not confined to a small number, but diffused through all parts of the state; besides, the Reformers said many true things! The best method to have reduced little by little the Huguenots of my kingdom, was not to have pursued them by any direct severity pointed at them.”

Lady Mary Wortley Montague is a remarkable instance of an author nearly lost to the nation; she is only known to posterity by a chance publication; for such were her famous Turkish letters, the manuscript of which her family once purchased with an intention to suppress, but they were frustrated by a transcript. The more recent letters were reluctantly extracted out of the family trunks, and surrendered in exchange for certain family documents, which had fallen into the hands of a bookseller. Had it depended on her relatives, the name of Lady Mary had only reached us in the satires of Pope. The greater part of her epistolary correspondence was destroyed by her mother; and what that good and Gothic lady spared, was suppressed by the hereditary austerity of rank, of which her family was too susceptible. The entire correspondence of this admirable writer and studious woman (for once, in perusing some unpublished letters of Lady Mary’s, I discovered that “she had been in the habit of reading seven hours a day for many years”) would undoubtedly have exhibited a fine statue, instead of the torso we now possess; and we might have lived with her ladyship, as we do with Madame de Sévigné. This I have mentioned elsewhere; but I have since discovered that a considerable correspondence of Lady Mary’s, for more than twenty years, with the widow of Colonel Forrester, who had retired to Rome, has been stifled in the birth. These letters, with other MSS. of Lady Mary’s, were given by Mrs. Forrester to Philip Thicknesse, with a discretionary power to publish. They were held as a great acquisition by Thicknesse, and his bookseller; but when they had printed off the first thousand sheets, there were parts which they considered might give pain to some of the family. Thicknesse says, “Lady Mary had in many places been uncommonly severe upon her husband, for all her letters were loaded with a scrap or two of poetry at him.”2 A negotiation took place with an agent of Lord Bute’s; after some time Miss Forrester put in her claims for the MSS.; and the whole terminated, as Thicknesse tells us, in her obtaining a pension, and Lord Bute all the MSS.

The late Duke of Bridgewater, I am informed, burnt many of the numerous family papers, and bricked up a quantity, which, when opened after his death, were found to have perished. It is said he declared that he did not choose that his ancestors should be traced back to a person of a mean trade, which it seems might possibly have been the case. The loss now cannot be appreciated; but unquestionably stores of history, and perhaps of literature, were sacrificed. Milton’s manuscript of Comus was published from the Bridgewater collection, for it had escaped the bricking up!

Manuscripts of great interest are frequently suppressed from the shameful indifference of the possessors.

Mr. Mathias, in his Essay on Gray, tells us, that “in addition to the valuable manuscripts of Mr. Gray, there is reason to think that there were some other papers, folia Sibyllæ, in the possession of Mr. Mason; but though a very diligent and anxious inquiry has been made after them, they cannot be discovered since his death. There was, however, one fragment, by Mr. Mason’s own description of it, of very great value, namely, “The Plan of an intended Speech in Latin on his appointment as Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge.” Mr. Mason says, “Immediately on his appointment, Mr. Gray sketched out an admirable plan for his inauguration speech; in which, after enumerating the preparatory and auxiliary studies requisite, such as ancient history, geography, chronology, &c., he descended to the authentic sources of the science, such as public treaties, state records, private correspondence of ambassadors, &c. He also wrote the exordium of this thesis, not, indeed, so correct as to be given by way of fragment, but so spirited in point of sentiment, as leaves it much to be regretted that he did not proceed to its conclusion.” This fragment cannot now be found; and after so very interesting a description of its value and of its importance, it is difficult to conceive how Mr. Mason could prevail upon himself to withhold it. If there be a subject on which more, perhaps, than on any other, it would have been peculiarly desirable to know and to follow the train of the ideas of Gray, it is that of modern history, in which no man was more intimately, more accurately, or more extensively conversant than our poet. A sketch or plan from his hand, on the subjects of history, and on those which belonged to it, might have taught succeeding ages how to conduct these important researches with national advantage; and, like some wand of divination, it might have

Pointed to beds where sovereign gold doth grow.3


I suspect that I could point out the place in which these precious “folia Sibyllæ” of Gray’s lie interred; they would no doubt be found among other Sibylline leaves of Mason, in two large boxes, which he left to the care of his executors. These gentlemen, as I am informed, are so extremely careful of them, as to have intrepidly resisted the importunity of some lovers of literature, whose curiosity has been aroused by the secreted treasures. It is a misfortune which has frequently attended this sort of bequests of literary men, that they have left their manuscripts, like their household furniture; and in several cases we find that many legatees conceive that all manuscripts are either to be burnt, like obsolete receipts, or to be nailed down in a box, that they may not stir a lawsuit!

In a manuscript note of the times, I find that Sir Richard Baker, the author of a chronicle, formerly the most popular one, died in the Fleet; and that his son-in-law, who had all his papers, burnt them for waste-paper; and he said that “he thought Sir Richard’s life was among them!” An autobiography of those days which we should now highly prize.

Among these mutilators of manuscripts we cannot too strongly remonstrate with those who have the care of the works of others, and convert them into a vehicle for their own particular purposes, even when they run directly counter to the knowledge and opinions of the original writer. Hard was the fate of honest Anthony Wood, when Dr. Fell undertook to have his history of Oxford translated into Latin; the translator, a sullen, dogged fellow, when he observed that Wood was enraged at seeing the perpetual alterations of his copy made to please Dr. Fell, delighted to alter it the more; while the greater executioner supervising the printed sheets, by “correcting, altering, or dashing out what he pleased,” compelled the writer publicly to disavow his own work! Such I have heard was the case of Bryan Edwards, who composed the first accounts of Mungo Park. Bryan Edwards, whose personal interests were opposed to the abolishment of the slave-trade, would not suffer any passage to stand in which the African traveller had expressed his conviction of its inhumanity. Park, among confidential friends, frequently complained that his work did not only not contain his opinions, but was even interpolated with many which he utterly disclaimed!

Suppressed books become as rare as manuscripts. In some researches relating to the history of the Mar-prelate faction, that ardent conspiracy against the established hierarchy, and of which the very name is but imperfectly to be traced in our history, I discovered that the books and manuscripts of the Mar-prelates have been too cautiously suppressed, or too completely destroyed; while those on the other side have been as carefully preserved. In our national collection, the British Museum, we find a great deal against Mar-prelate, but not Mar-prelate himself.

I have written the history of this conspiracy in the third, volume of “Quarrels of Authors.”

1 It is now about thirty-seven years ago since I first published this anecdote; at the same time I received information that our female historian and dilapidator had acted in this manner more than once. At that distance of time this rumour, so notorious at the British Museum, it was impossible to authenticate. The Rev. William Graham, the surviving husband of Mrs. Macaulay, intemperately called on Dr. Morton, in a very advanced period of life, to declare that “it appeared to him that the note does not contain any evidence that the leaves were torn out by Mrs. Macaulay.” It was more apparent to the unprejudiced that the doctor must have singularly lost the use of his memory, when he could not explain his own official note, which, perhaps, at the time he was compelled to insert. Dr. Morton was not unfriendly to Mrs. Macaulay’s political party; he was the editor of Whitelocke’s “Diary of his Embassy to the Queen of Sweden,” and has, I believe, largely castrated the work. The original lies at the British Museum.

2 There was one passage he recollected:—

Just left my bed

A lifeless trunk, and scarce a dreaming head!

3 I have seen a transcript, by the favour of a gentleman who sent it to me, of Gray’s “Directions for Heading History.” It had its merit, at a time when our best histories had not been published, but it is entirely superseded by the admirable “Méthode” of Lenglet du Fresnoy.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53