- Introduction: Fraud and Forgery in Victorian Culture
In one of the central passages of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now (1875), the reader accompanies Augustus Melmotte, megalomaniac financier, into his private office and watches this “tower of strength” (72) and “prophet” (331) of commercial enterprise forge the signatures of his daughter and his clerk on a transfer deed. The rich and politically ambitious railway magnate has placed a large fortune in his daughter’s name so as to keep it from “the ordinary fluctuations of commercial enterprise” (579). Now, with a ruined reputation and in need of liquid funds in an avalanching stock market, and faced with his daughter’s refusal to sanction the transfer in writing, Melmotte “[practices] the two signatures for the best part of an hour” (585) before setting off into the City with the forged documents. Despite his meticulous rehearsing, however, Melmotte misses one of the signature lines, leaving the whole thing void—a fact the narrator later ironically takes to mean that “any fool might do an honest business,” while “fraud requires a man to be alive and wide awake at every turn!” (619). As the reader knows at this point in the novel, Melmotte is himself also a fraud: a serial forger of identities circulating between European capitals. In an interior monologue, the narrator discloses that “Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life” (613). Melmotte’s lack of a traceable origin troubles his biographers, who, after his suicide, interestingly conclude that he was in fact the son of “a noted coiner in New York” (735). The association with the profession of coining doubles the impression that his identity is reproductive, imitative, and ultimately counterfeit. His signatures, then, are false in a double sense: they are not his own, and they are issued by a body that does not belong to a single identity.
Much like the bastard or the impostor, the forger is something of an emblem of the Victorian imagination. In an epistemological system characterized by shifting attitudes toward the act of seeing—a system in which “the sufficiency of the visible” (Flint 25) and the ability of the visible to function as a “[way] of knowing” (Malton 6) were being challenged on several fronts—forgeries of this kind were, as Sara Malton has argued, an “intensely dangerous social and economic disruption” (2). A signature is a quintessentially “authentic” inscription of identity upon a document that becomes legitimate only at the moment of inscription. It is a fixed mark whose stasis belies the performative nature of its inscription, converting [End Page 227] blank potential into supposedly robust legitimacy and authority. The forgery of a signature—its unsanctioned appearance out of another hand—seems therefore almost sacrilegious. It violates a whole system of identification, a logic of origination and authenticity, the cohesion of moral selfhood, and the concept of the self-contained subject. Echoing Derrida’s notion of the circular nature of exchange, Malton likens the false signature to a false coin insofar as it claims for itself “an authorized origin” (14) that, firstly, it does not have, and, secondly and more paradoxically, is inherently difficult to verify “because of its very similarity to the mechanism of credit it exploits” (14). Similarly, the muteness of the forged words in a false signature, their inability to identify themselves as anything other than real, at once mimics and undermines the function of trust in industrial commercial society. In literary and philosophical texts, the forged signature and the false coin not only symbolize the insecurity of modern systems of exchange but also give expression to a crisis of subjectivity and representation.
Concurrently, acts of fraud and forgery can have empowering or assertive qualities. The belief that names and signatures belong to singular individuals, that faces and identities signify or embody each other, that one person is not another, that identity is more than an assemblage of contingent truth claims, has never been a straightforward assumption and leaves room for the poet as well as the forger. In his landmark study of literary forgery, Nick Groom stresses the necessity of embracing forgery...