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  • Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgeryby Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell
  • Sarah Parker (bio)
Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery, by Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell; pp. xii + 470. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, $50.00.

"Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art" (Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying," Intentions[Brentano's, 1905], 55). This provocative statement serves as the "final revelation" of Oscar Wilde's witty dialogue in "The Decay of Lying" (1889, revised 1891), understood by many as a statement of Wilde's own aesthetic creed. Indeed, as Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell explain in Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery, Wilde has, from the early stages of his career through to our own time, continued to attract accusations of literary lying, including forgery and plagiarism, from reviewers and critics who discern echoes of others' words in his poetry, plays, and non-fictional works.

At the heart of such accusations is a rather obscure piece of archival evidence: Wilde's Chatterton notebook, held in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California. In this notebook, assembled in the mid-1880s, Wilde pasted quotations from eminent Thomas Chatterton scholars, along with some of his own notes. As Bristow and Mitchell explain, this document has been regarded by many critics as "incontrovertible evidence of his supposedly habitual, and thoroughly shameful, plagiarism," as many believe it functioned as unacknowledged material for a lecture he delivered at Birkbeck in 1886 (17).

Bristow and Mitchell claim that such scholars have misread the true significance of the Chatterton notebook. They argue that the notebook was intended for Wilde's private use and that its implications suffuse his later works. Wilde was deeply engaged with Chatterton, utilizing the "marvellous boy" (to borrow William Wordsworth's sobriquet) as the very basis of his own aesthetic philosophy. Chatterton himself was a brilliant forger who created a fictional fifteenth-century persona, Thomas Rowley, and fabricated skillfully faux-medieval poems under that name. Following his tragic suicide at the age of seventeen, Chatterton's contemporaries were left to ponder whether he was "a cheat" or "a poet of rare genius and strange creative power" (David Wilson, Chatterton: A Biographical Study[Macmillan, 1869], 109). Wilde inclined to the latter view, regarding Chatterton's forgeries as symptomatic of the true artist's yearning for "perfect representation" (qtd. in Bristow and Mitchell, 403).

Oscar Wilde's Chattertonis in many ways as hybrid as Wilde's notebook itself. It transcends the traditional monograph, combining detailed cultural history with literary [End Page 318]analysis, and concluding with scholarly editions of Wilde's Chatterton notebook and his notes on Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One of the most impressive aspects of this study is the way in which it successfully brings together the eighteenth century and the Victorian fin de siècle via a careful tracing of the Romantic movement (and the contested term Romanticism itself). The authors reveal how the lineaments of Romanticism (and Chatterton's status within it) were shaped by later nineteenth-century scholarship. For example, the Victorian critic Theodore Watts traced clear lines of influence from Chatterton to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, through John Keats, to Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, acknowledging Chatterton as "father of the New Romantic School" (qtd. 110): an idea that was heavily influential for Wilde. In this sense, Oscar Wilde's Chattertonis as much concerned with the critical forces that dictate the forging of literary reputations as it is with the themes and techniques of literal forgery.

The first chapters trace a history of scholarship on Chatterton, surveying biographical studies and the editorial history of the Rowley poems. Chapter 2 turns to the formation of the Chatterton legend, discussing literary responses, such as Herbert Croft's sensationalistic Love and Madness(1780) and visual representations such as Henry Wallis's famous painting "The Death of Chatterton"(1856). This section culminates with Wilde's ultimately thwarted attempts with Herbert B. Horne of the Century Guild to erect a monument for Chatterton in his home...


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