Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Literary Filchers.

An honest historian at times will have to inflict severe stroke on his favourites. This has fallen to my lot, for in the course of my researches, I have to record that we have both forgers and purloiners, as well as other more obvious impostors, in the republic of letters! The present article descends to relate anecdotes of some contrivances to possess our literary curiosities by other means than by purchase; and the only apology which can be alleged for the splendida peccata, as St. Austin calls the virtues of the heathen, of the present innocent criminals, is their excessive passion for literature, and otherwise the respectability of their names. According to Grose’s “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” we have had celebrated collectors, both in the learned and vulgar idioms. But one of them, who had some reasons too to be tender on this point, distinguished this mode of completing his collections, not by book-stealing, but by book-coveting. On some occasions, in mercy, we must allow of softening names. Were not the Spartans allowed to steal from one another, and the bunglers only punished?

It is said that Pinelli made occasional additions to his literary treasures sometimes by his skill in an art which lay much more in the hand than in the head: however, as Pinelli never stirred out of his native city but once in his lifetime, when the plague drove him from home, his field of action was so restricted, that we can hardly conclude that he could have been so great an enterpriser in this way. No one can have lost their character by this sort of exercise in a confined circle, and be allowed to prosper! A light-fingered Mercury would hardly haunt the same spot: however, this is as it may be! It is probable that we owe to this species of accumulation many precious manuscripts in the Cottonian collection. It appears by the manuscript note-book of Sir Nicholas Hyde, chief justice of the King’s Bench from the second to the seventh year of Charles the First, that Sir Robert Cotton had in his library, records, evidences, ledger-books, original letters, and other state papers, belonging to the king; for the attorney-general of that time, to prove this, showed a copy of the pardon which Sir Robert had obtained from King James for embezzling records, &c.1

Gough has more than insinuated that Rawlinson and his friend Umfreville “lie under very strong suspicions;” and he asserts that the collector of the Wilton treasures made as free as Dr. Willis with his friend’s coins.2 But he has also put forth a declaration relating to Bishop More, the famous collector, that “the bishop collected his library by plundering those of the clergy in his diocese; some he paid with sermons or more modern books; others, less civilly, only with a quid illiterati cum libris?” This plundering then consisted rather of cajoling others out of what they knew not how to value; and this is an advantage which every skilful lover of books must enjoy over those whose apprenticeship has not expired. I have myself been plundered by a very dear friend of some such literary curiosities, in the days of my innocence and of his precocity of knowledge. However, it does appear that Bishop More did actually lay violent hands in a snug corner on some irresistible little charmer; which we gather from a precaution adopted by a friend of the bishop, who one day was found busy in hiding his rarest books, and locking up as many as he could. On being asked the reason of this odd occupation, the bibliopolist ingenuously replied, “The Bishop of Ely dines with me to-day.” This fact is quite clear, and here is another as indisputable. Sir Robert Saville writing to Sir Robert Cotton, appointing an interview with the founder of the Bodleian Library, cautions Sir Robert, that “If he held any book so dear as that he would be loath to lose it, he should not let Sir Thomas out of his sight, but set ‘the boke’ aside beforehand.” A surprise and detection of this nature has been revealed in a piece of secret history by Amelot de la Houssaie, which terminated in very important political consequences. He assures us that the personal dislike which Pope Innocent X. bore to the French had originated in his youth, when cardinal, from having been detected in the library of an eminent French collector, of having purloined a most rare volume. The delirium of a collector’s rage overcame even French politesse; the Frenchman not only openly accused his illustrious culprit, but was resolved that he should not quit the library without replacing the precious volume — from accusation and denial both resolved to try their strength: but in this literary wrestling-match the book dropped out of the cardinal’s robes! — and from that day he hated the French — at least their more curious collectors!

Even an author on his dying bed, at those awful moments, should a collector be by his side, may not be considered secure from his too curious hands. Sir William Dugdale possessed the minutes of King James’s life, written by Camden, till within a fortnight of his death; as also Camden’s own life, which he had from Hacket, the author of the folio life of Bishop Williams: who, adds Aubrey, “did filch it from Mr. Camden, as he lay a dying!” He afterwards corrects his information, by the name of Dr. Thorndyke, which, however, equally answers our purpose, to prove that even dying authors may dread such collectors!

The medalists have, I suspect, been more predatory than these subtractors of our literary treasures; not only from the facility of their conveyance, but from a peculiar contrivance which of all those things which admit of being secretly purloined, can only be practised in this department — for they can steal and no human hand can search them with any possibility of detection; they can pick a cabinet and swallow the curious things, and transport them with perfect safety, to be digested at their leisure. An adventure of this kind happened to Baron Stosch, the famous antiquary. It was in looking over the gems of the royal cabinet of medals, that the keeper perceived the loss of one; his place, his pension, and his reputation were at stake: and he insisted that Baron Stosch should be most minutely examined; in this dilemma, forced to confession, this erudite collector assured the keeper of the royal cabinet, that the strictest search would not avail: “Alas, sir! I have it here within,” he said, pointing to his breast — an emetic was suggested by the learned practitioner himself, probably from some former experiment. This was not the first time that such a natural cabinet had been invented; the antiquary Vaillant, when attacked at sea by an Algerine, zealously swallowed a whole series of Syrian kings; when he landed at Lyons, groaning with his concealed treasure, he hastened to his friend, his physician, and his brother antiquary Dufour — who at first was only anxious to inquire of his patient, whether the medals were of the higher empire? Vaillant showed two or three, of which nature had kindly relieved him. A collection of medals was left to the city of Exeter, and the donor accompanied the bequest by a clause in his will, that should a certain antiquary, his old friend and rival, be desirous of examining the coins, he should be watched by two persons, one on each side. La Croze informs us in his life, that the learned Charles Patin, who has written a work on medals, was one of the present race of collectors: Patin offered the curators of the public library at Basle to draw up a catalogue of the cabinet of Amberback there preserved, containing a good number of medals; but they would have been more numerous, had the catalogue-writer not diminished both them and his labour, by sequestrating some of the most rare, which was not discovered till this plunderer of antiquity was far out of their reach.

When Gough touched on this odd subject in the first edition of his “British Topography,” “An Academic” in the Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1772, insinuated that this charge of literary pilfering was only a jocular one; on which Gough, in his second edition, observed that this was not the case, and that “one might point out enough light-fingered antiquaries in the present age, to render such a charge extremely probable against earlier ones.” The most extraordinary part of this slight history is, that our public denouncer some time after proved himself to be one of these “light-fingered antiquaries:” the deed itself, however, was more singular than disgraceful. At the disinterment of the remains of Edward the First, around which thirty years ago assembled our most erudite antiquaries, Gough was observed, as Steevens used to relate, in a wrapping great-coat of unusual dimensions; that witty and malicious “Puck,” so capable himself of inventing mischief, easily suspected others, and divided his glance as much on the living piece of antiquity as on the elder. In the act of closing up the relics of royalty, there was found wanting an entire fore-finger of Edward the First; and as the body was perfect when opened, a murmur of dissatisfaction was spreading, when “Puck” directed their attention to the great antiquary in the watchman’s great-coat — from whence — too surely was extracted Edward the First’s great fore-finger! — so that “the light-fingered antiquary” was recognised ten years after he denounced the race, when he came to “try his hand.”3

1 Lansdowne MSS. 888, in the former printed catalogue, art. 79.

2 Coins are the most dangerous things which can be exhibited to a professed collector. One of the fraternity, who died but a few years since, absolutely kept a record of his pilferings; he succeeded in improving his collection by attending sales also, and changing his own coins for others in better preservation.

3 It is probable that this story of Gough’s pocketing the fore-finger of Edward the First, was one of the malicious inventions of George Steevens, after he discovered that the antiquary was among the few admitted to the untombing of the royal corpse; Steevens himself was not there! Sylvanus Urban (the late respected John Nichols), who must know much more than he cares to record of “Puck,”— has, however, given the following “secret history” of what he calls “ungentlemanly and unwarrantable attacks” on Gough by Steevens. It seems that Steevens was a collector of the works of Hogarth, and while engaged in forming his collection, wrote an abrupt letter to Gough to obtain from him some early impressions, by purchase or exchange. Gough resented the manner of his address by a rough refusal, for it is admitted to have been “a peremptory one.” Thus arose the implacable vengeance of Steevens, who used to boast that all the mischievous tricks he played on the grave antiquary, who was rarely over-kind to any one, was but a pleasant kind of revenge.

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