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Great fakes The Forgers Shadow How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature Nick Groom 351pp Picador At the heart of this book is a cluster of intriguing stories that almost does justice to its potentially vainglorious subtitle They belong to a short period of English literature the late 18th century which saw the most outstanding forgers If these audacious fakers changed the course of literature it was by persuading most of the leading writers of the romantic age to regard their fabrications as inspired Forgery was artistic rebellion - an escape route for the imagination At times Nick Groom seems to believe that forgery is literary creation at its most intense First there was James Macpherson A Scottish schoolmaster who collected manuscripts and transcribed traditional songs he creatively reconstructed the oral compositions of a Gaelic bard called Ossian dubbed the Homer of Scotland by Voltaire With the encouragement of several gullible leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment he supplied translations of Ossians doomy heroic epics dying warriors keening women the wind over the hills They were revered throughout Europe Macphersons trick was to give readers only the echo of some primitive original to which they could never have direct access As Groom does not quite explain primitivism was a polite fashion Ossian was the convenient figment of a culture that thought itself so polished as to have lost poetic inspiration Does Groom really wants us to admire Macphersons fabrications Sometimes as when endorsing William Blakes celebration of the ancient bard it seems so Yet Blake was influenced all for the worse by Ossians repetitious and portentous cadences Groom quotes enough for the reader to see that what was interesting was not the writing but the fashion for it Thomas Chatterton the greatest of poetic fakers is something else entirely This 15-year-old boy from a charity school invented the medieval monk Thomas Rowley the scribe of William Canynge who had truly been mayor of Bristol
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