In which the author wades into an age-old case of who-wrote-it , familiarising himself with eighteenth century wit, history and current affairs in the meantime.
During my Master’s studies concerning character idiolects in drama, I became fascinated with Real-Life Stories of authorship attribution and literary detective work. Reading tales of CIA helicopters descending on football fields to whisk literary detective and successful self-promoter Dr Don Foster off to Langley, VA to solve a Federal crime conjured up Indiana-Jones-esque adventures rife with derring-do and textual intrigue.
Imagine a morning of expert witness proceedings at the Old Bailey. Tea at the Ritz. An audience with the Queen and the Royal Society. 60 Minutes. Time Magazine.
The reality of course, is probably a tad more benign.
Some guy writes anonymous pamphlet. Nothing major happens. Guy is forgotten in the mists of time. A student writes an M.Sc thesis on pamphlets. Nothing much happens. Thesis is covered in the Guardian, Mild Twitter buzz. Invited talk at a Midlands Redbrick.
However, glory aside, there still remains something immensely satisfying about the settling of disputed or unknown authorship, like an Agatha Christie whodunnit, and “rewriting history”, even if it is only one footnote at a time.
A question of authorship
Recently, I was alerted to an intriguing open authorship attribution question, namely that of the authorship of a number of anonymous 18th century satirical political pamphlets concerning Irish affairs.
The topic of satire was prescient in Irish current affairs of late, as He Who Shall Not Be Named unleashed another legal gagging order, this time it was Irish satirical media outlet, Waterford Whispers News, who were the targets of the injunction. Dean Swift would probably empathise, were he around today.
Never tire of satire
As mentioned, Ireland has a long proud tradition of satirical political correspondence, going back to the days of Swift’s own Drapier’s Letters, and it is indeed here that the topics of authorship attribution and satire are united. A number of the anonymous satirical pamphlets brought to my recent attention are signed M.B Drapier, the same pseudonym used by Swift in the Letters, although the language is not believed to be Swiftian.
The author of these pieces is believed to be Tobias Smollett MD, Scottish sawbones, adventurer and erstwhile novelist, author of such delightfully titled yarns as “The Adventures of Roderick Random”. New-Zealand based historian Don Shelton, the proposer of the notion that Smollett was the author of these anonymous satires, first encountered Smollett in an unrelated project on 18th century murder and man-midwifery.
The first pamphlet in question is titled Ireland in tears, or, a letter to St. Andrew’s eldest daughter’s youngest son.The catalogue entry at Marsh’s Library Dublin describes it as:
An attack on Lionel Cranfield Sackville, Duke of Dorset, with special reference to the case of Arthur Jones Nevill who was expelled from the Irish House of Commons on Nov. 23, 1753.
A riveting read in which the author expresses, amongst other things, a fondness for the Aul’ Sod and a particular Dublin University, Shelton presents a relatively solid case for authorship in his blog post.
“The use of the pseudonym Major Sawney MacCleaver as the author, who appears as a character in previous works by Smollett, the references to the author’s Scottish origin throughout and the very title of the pamphlet (Ireland in Tears) being undeniably similar to one of Smollett’s most famous works, The Tears of Scotland, indicates at least the possibility that Smollett is a likely candidate for authorship. Other pamphlets which may have been authored by Smollett are presented in the end notes of Ireland in Tears.”
These include such jolly titles as:
A Genuine Letter from a Freeman of Bandon to George Faulkner,Occasioned by a Lying Extract of a Letter from Bandon, Inserted in His Journal the 24th of December Last, Dublin, 1755, 11pp. A Genuine Letter from a Freeman of Bandon, to George …
A Vindication of the Ministerial Conduct, of his Grace the Duke of Dorset, London, M Griffiths, 1755, 24pp., by a servant of the Crown, (Eleazar Albin?), London, M Griffiths. A Vindication of the Ministerial Conduct, of His Grace the …
And one attributed commonly to Swift
The Imitation of Beasts; or, the Irish Christian Doctrine, Dublin, J Swift, 1755.
By implication, Smollett likely authored other Irish themed pamphlets, including:
Ireland Disgraced, Or, The Island of Saints Become an Island of Sinners: Clearly Proved, in a Dialogue Between Doctor B–tt and Doctor B–ne, by (?) John Brett (Rector of Moynalty), Dublin, S Hooper and A Morley, 1758, 75pp.
A Letter to the Right Hon. the Lord *******, with an Account of the Expulsion of the Late Surveyor-General from the House of Commons of Ireland, in Answer to Thoughts on the Affairs of Ireland.
Smollett is perhaps best known for his delightfully-titled series of picaresque novels :
- The Adventures of Roderick Random
- The Adventure of Peregrine Pickle
- The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom
- The Expeditions of Humphry Clinker
and as a translator of Don Quixote and French Picaresque classic Gil Blas. Apparently quite beloved in past years (George Orwell was a fan) , he has lately slipped out of the public consciousness. Which is quite a shame, as he is eminently quotable, as per the below example from his personal correspondence.
“Nothing agrees with me so well as hard exercise, which, however, the Indolence of my Disposition, continually counteracts “
“Some folks are wise, and some are otherwise”
In order to investigate authorial style similarities, it will be necessary to compile a corpus of Smollett’s writing. As the genre of the pamphlets in question are most similar to letters, a collection of Smollett’s personal correspondence was made, extracted from (Noyes 1926) in the HathiTrust Collection. This correspondence consists of ca. 70 letters dating from the period 1737 to 1771, when Smollett died in Italy of complications arising from tuberculosis. It has been collected and OCR-corrected to allow for comparison with the anonymous pamphlets in question, and also the writings of Smollett contemporaries such as David Hume, Jonathan Swift, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Johnson and others using the General Impostor method, currently sweeping the boards at authorship attribution shared tasks such as the PAN series.
There may be issues with different versions of 17th century texts, some of which has been “corrected” to bring it up to modern typographic standards in Project Gutenberg and some of which Remains of a Stylistic Temperament more Fitting to the Period.
Smollett was the Editor of the London Monthly Review for a number of years and according to Shelton, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of anonymous letters from his hand, although not all are even available online. An authorship attribution problem such as this is reminiscent of a recent find of an annotated copy of Charles Dickens’ All The Year Round, attributing a number of hitherto anonymous articles which scholars had puzzled over for decades.
After all, good satire, like art, should stand the test of time.
The Letters of Tobias Smollett, M.D., collected and edited by Edward S. Noyes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926).
Koppel, Moshe, Jonathan Schler, and Elisheva Bonchek-Dokow. “Measuring Differentiability: Unmasking Pseudonymous Authors.” Journal of Machine Learning Research 8.2 (2007): 1261-1276.
Foster, Donald W. Author unknown: On the trail of anonymous. Macmillan, 2000.