The Macrone Conspiracy
Posted by Nick Milne on November 4, 2011
This was originally produced as a comment on a post at Prof. Holger Syme’s excellent blog, but I’m pleased enough with it to reproduce it here. A commenter on Prof. Syme’s ongoing series of posts about the absurdity of the Shakespearean authorship debate humourously extended the idea to other works of literature – in this case, those of Dickens:
Are you then implying, Steven, that “Sketches by Boz” and other, even greater tomes of literature could actually have been written by an uneducated former pauper named Charles Dickens? –And that his storehouse of knowledge was found in books and in travelling the streets of London? Preposterous. Who is this mysterious, inimitable “Boz”-REALLY?
With regard to the true authorship of the Sketches by Boz, all evidence points to the matchless James Boswell (1740 – 1795), whose meditations upon his time in London and the individuals whose society he enjoyed have proven so enriching to readers interested in that city.
The discovery of his private papers at Malahide in the 1920s saw a number of his personal journals published for the consumption of an enthusiastic public, but orthodox scholars failed to realize that those papers constituted only what had been left over after the same collection had been thoroughly plundered almost a century before. The Anglo-Irish publisher John Macrone had been on holiday at the castle in 1831 and discovered the trove of papers in an attic while seeking a place to smoke his pipe in defiance of his hectoring wife. The papers found in that dusty trunk were of two characters; the smaller part were the personal journals and recollections that would be rediscovered later, but the greater consisted of dozens of bound manuscripts and an assortment of loose, diminutive works, all of them largely fictional pastiches of life in London as Boswell had seen it.
For indeed, the Sketches, as Macrone described them upon the commencement of their publication in 1833, began their lives as yet further episodes from Boswell’s endless wanderings about the streets of the Capital. The most famous of his fictional engagements with the City and her denizens, of course, can be found in Boswell’s Life of his greatest creation – the ironical lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson – but the short vignettes that Macrone appropriated were those which had been cut from that impressive tome for want of space. The decision to excise them was made all the more simple by the degree to which their style differed from that of the rest of the book; they were written at a time when a particularly vicious case of the pox had seen Boswell heavily dosed with laudanum, and the work produced during this period was scarcely recognizable as his own. Many of the larger, discrete manuscripts were noted to originate from this period as well.
Macrone was immediately presented with a problem: the texts he had purloined were clearly set in a London far removed from the one in which he wished to propagate them, and contained many references to political and social matters that would immediately date them in the eyes of an astute reader. Inasmuch as they had an excess of things undesirable, so too did they lack much that was desired: nowhere at all were to be found any mention of the defeat of the Corsican Tyrant, the reigns of those august monarchs George IV and William IV, the widespread adoption of the steam engine in transport, or any one of a hundred other minor details that lend verisimilitude without straining plausibility.
By way of a solution, Macrone – no mean prose stylist himself, owing to the classical education enjoyed during his upbringing and a shrewd understanding of the tastes of that novel and growing “reading public” – exercised a program of strict substitution. Where the texts were anachronistic (elaborate periwigs, the American Question, the latest triumph of Mr. Garrick), he replaced the offending passages with references to something modern (locomotive rail travel, the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, His Grace the Duke of Wellington). Where the speech of certain characters was too old-fashioned and affected to pass as contemporary intercourse, he rewrote each line in a dialect of some sort – the ever-inscrutable Cockney being a favourite.
Not wishing to hazard all on a single toss, Macrone started by releasing only a handful of minor pieces from among the reams of paper he had stolen – the Sketches already alluded to. The first such sketch appeared in the December issue of The Monthly Magazine, and proved an immediate hit.
The reader will no doubt feel, with the benefit of hindsight, that Macrone’s chosen pseudonym of “Boz” was scarcely adequate concealment, and this eventually proved to be the case. No one ever seemed to suspect that James Boswell was actually the author of the works being devoured by all the reading world – an honour not accorded to his writings in decades – but wide and loud was the cry for the mysterious author to step forward and reveal himself. Macrone was thus faced with yet another problem. The successes of such poetical gentlemen as Messrs Byron, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley had shown the public ready to make heroes of its favoured authors, but Macrone had nobody to present to them upon whom could be laid the laurels. He could scarcely step forward and claim himself the tales’ originator; his friends and family knew him and his habits too well to believe that he would have the time to write at such length and with such insight.
Fate cast a line into his hands. His weekly round of the local inns and pubs had brought him into contact with a young man of little prospects but great personal charisma. This ill-starred fellow had been born into modest means but soon reduced to the most abject poverty, with his father sent to the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea and all the family forced to work for their support and the patriarch’s release. He spent his days working in a warehouse for pennies, and fell into the habit of taking a pint or two on his way home. It was while thus occupied that Macrone first found him, and a fast friendship developed. It turned out that the young man had literary aspirations – had even looked into becoming a reporter of political speeches. It was too perfect.
That man’s name was Charles John Huffam Dickens. This ill-schooled issue of poorhouse and prison agreed to lend his name to the Boswell manuscripts that Macrone intended to slowly publish over the course of the coming years, the proceeds of the ruse being split 80/20 – in Macrone’s favour. Macrone showed him the dozens of Boswell’s novels and stories that were already complete, needing only the substitution of modern elements for the old. Dickens understood well what was expected of him.
In 1836, “Boz” was revealed as Charles Dickens, and all of England rejoiced.
In 1837, John Macrone – aged 28 and in excellent health – died suddenly, mysteriously, and without warning. Dickens contacted the greatest authors in England to contribute to a small volume, The Pic-Nic Papers, the sales of which would raise money for Macrone’s widow. She received 450 pounds, and brought all relations with Dickens to an end.
It is surely a matter of complete coincidence that, that very year, an inexperienced young girl named Alexandrina Victoria ascended the throne…