03 January 2009

the story of a literary hoax; or, how Elizabeth Pepys came to be quoted on "turds that do fly"

I'm doing some research on Sammy Pepys for an essay I'm co-writing on the remediation of literature -- in particular, I'm interested in all the different forms or media translations Pepys's Diary has taken or inspired -- and happily stumbled a nice little literary hoax. In 1991, feminist scholar Dale Spender published her "edition" of The Diary of Elizabeth Pepys, which was recently "discovered" at a house in Clapham, South London. From the back cover:
The diary is far and away the most creative literary revelation of this century. It offers a fascinating and frank portrayal of the harsh predicament of seventeenth-century women and presents many previously unknown -- and often unflattering -- facts about Samuel Pepys himself.
The book contains everything one might expect of an edited edition of a diary: an acknowledgments page proffering thanks for assistance "during this extensive editorial exercise"; a 20-page biographical introduction of Elizabeth Pepys; a glossary of seventeenth-century terms; "Notes of the Text" describing how Spender has changed dates from the original, or modernized the spelling; and of course the whole thing is peppered with footnotes. It helps that, next to the title page, Dale Spender has listed other works by her, which include Women's Work and Words: Diaries and Letters 1788-1840 and Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers. In other words, the thing is credentialed. It's easy to see how someone browsing in a bookstore might have been fooled.

So what gives it away? First, the cover. My copy is paperback and looks like a cheap historical romance -- flimsy paper, ugly font, curly romantic lettering for the title. Second, the writing. Although I knew it was fiction when I bought it, I'm fairly certain I would have noticed how each entry just begs to be read against Samuel's Diary, in a transparent feminist critique. (According to the book, Elizabeth began her journal many years before Sammy, and in fact was the one who encouraged her husband to start writing.)

But third? This little sentence on the copyright page:
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked talking about the book itself, when I really wanted to talk about the poor innocents who have been taken in by the hoax. Exhibit A: Austin Duncan Brown, a biologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wollongong; also the author of Feed or Feedback: Agriculture, Population Dynamics and the State of the Planet. In his chapter "The Sanitary Imperative," Brown discusses the use of human manure in seventeenth-century Europe:
Samuel Pepys commented adversely in his diary about the unpleasant consequences of having his cellar flooded with the contents of his neighbur's 'house of office'. But his wife, Elizabeth, also kept a diary in which she gives a more graphic account of hazards of city life in 17th century England. In an entry in February, 1661, she described going to a public bath house -- and then her experience while walking home afterwards.
He goes on to quote (the fake) Miz Pepys at some length, not even shying from this little gem:
That night Samuel and I did talk of the shitty hazards of the town, and not just the turds that do fly, and the ordure that does pile high on the corner. But so much excrement each day does get produced and no ordered place to put it -- which does offend Samuel.
There's even a footnote that carefully documents Spender's own (fake) footnote that Lizzy's (fake) mention of a toilet "could be a reference to Thomas Povey's establishment," since he had a bathroom at the top of his house. Who knows, maybe that's true. Most of the information in Spender's footnotes is, ironically, documented.

Poor Brown isn't the only one taken in. Exhibit B: Melissa Bull, a Lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University (another Australian school -- Spender is Australian and the book probably got more publicity there); also author of the recently published Governing the Heroin Trade: From Treaties to Treatment. While briefly documenting the history of opium, Bull mentions that "in England, poppyhead tea had long been known as a home remedy for soothing irritable and sleepless babies, as well as troubled adults," adding the footnote:
Elizabeth Pepys (1640), wife of Samuel Pepys, diarist and civil servant, unselfconsciously makes mention of 'wildpoppy' in her diary (Wednesday, 9 January 1656). 'Nicholas Culpeper says of it that "... the black seed boiled in wine, and drank, is said also to stay the flux of the belly, and women's courses. The empty shells, or poppy heads, are usually boiled in water, and given to procure rest and sleep." And "...it is also put into hollow teeth to ease the pain"' (quoted in Spender 1991: 106).
The text is indeed from Nicholas Culpeper's herbal (which is available online here -- you can find this quote on the page for 'Poppy'), and the entire quote is Spender's footnote on Elizabeth's mention of "wildpoppy."

Neil Hanson in The Dreadful Judgement, a history of the Great Fire of London, also is said to quote the hoax diary, although I'd have make a trip to the library to confirm. And writers aren't the only ones who have been fooled. In a letter to the editor in the Guardian, Monica Hill chides Claire Tomalin for stating in her recent biography of Pepys that "not a single line of her (Elizabeth Pepys) writing has reached us" when, of course, we have The Diary of Elizabeth Pepys. Tomalin responds that Hill "may like to know that in 1998 a second diary turned up, The Journal of Mrs Pepys, this time from Sara George [another fictionalized account]." Tomalin also mentions that "the British Library catalogue lists Sara George's book as "fiction", but curiously fails to do the same for Dale Spender's spoof, giving Elizabeth Pepys as author and Spender as editor." It seems that the British Library has since corrected the error; but plenty of libraries haven't, including University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge University, and Johns Hopkins. In fact, compare the two search results on WorldCat:


Now, the last thing I want to do (or hope you're interpreting me as doing) is point and laugh. We all make mistakes with our references now and then, or fail to follow-up with our sources; and, all in all, the mistake is innocent. Bull's error is a simple one of citation -- she should have just quoted Culpeper directly, since his is a real source -- and while Brown's use of the "Diary" is a little more serious (it's hard to use a twentieth-century fake to make a real point about seventeenth-century sanitation!), his book isn't really about the history of sanitation at all. He could throw away that entire section and still have what seems to be an insightful and important book on environmental politics.

But. Nonetheless. This is fascinating. Not the literary hoax part, so much -- because I seriously doubt any historians of Restoration England were deceived -- but how the "fake" text travels through the authentic, the "real" history (the source texts), to prove a nonexistent past, and how that process reflects exactly what Dale Spender is doing in the fictional Diary. In some ways, this is the same trajectory that all texts take, feeding off a factual "before" to create an admittedly fictionalized "now" (skewed, biased -- we all admit what we do when we write, today), which then becomes the historical fodder for the future.

Actually, this is exactly what Samuel's Diary does, too. Perhaps best known for its entries on the Great Fire of London or the plague -- indeed, often used as a primary source text for these events -- the Diary recounts some of the most important events in British history; yet it falls far short of the documentary evidence historians might wish to have. In fact [pun intended, har har], the Diary ironically exposes how mediated the past is precisely because we expect a journal to be so unimpeachably "authentic," so far beyond the frustrating arguments over history as narrative, or the frames of interpretation that muddy up a text. The "eyewitness account" of an event is supposed to get us past all that mess -- this is why we use confessions in religion, or when the state metes out justice. And yet Pepys's first-hand retellings only seem to expose the petty insecurities and foolish pride of a human (perhaps representative of all humans in similar circumstances) who, at the height of the plague in London, consoles himself with wet dreams and a sorry misreading Hamlet's soliloquy.

Pepys will misread Shakespeare; we'll misread Pepys. This isn't really a lesson in checking your citations -- it's a lesson in the impossibility of authenticity, perhaps even the impossibility of "misreading," since every telling is simply another retelling. (Another way of saying: I don't want to reintroduce the notion of an original by saying that what we have is somehow corrupted.) Now that Pepys is blogging -- and in the Wheatley edition, which is bowdlerized -- errors from the past, corrected in the Latham & Matthews edition (I was very tempted to put "corrected" in scare quotes, but spared you) are re-inscribed on the present, and no doubt will work their way into scholarship that presents itself as some form of lower-case truth, starting the cycle all over again. This is our world, mediated both through the eyes of someone deeply human, and through the objects we create to make it.

4 comments:

mercuriuspoliticus said...

Wonderful post. It reminds me of Veronica Buckley's biography of Madame de Maintenon, which quoted from the diary of Louis XIV - a work of fiction(Le Journal Secret de Louis XIV), much along the lines of Spender's "diary". And then there is Hugh Trevor-Roper's authentication of the Hitler diaries, although he did very quickly change his mind on those.

I think you're right that there is something about the diary as a form that perhaps encourages us, a priori, to take it more seriously than other sources. As you say, outside academic scholarship Western culture encourages us to take seriously the first-hand account - plus is there something about an account that was initially intended to be private and seen by noone that persuades us, subtly or imperceptibly, that the writer has less of an agenda?

Whitney said...

Ooo great examples, I'd love to learn of other literary hoaxes. I think you're exactly right, we see diary writers as having purer (internal, personal) motives. I was reading something about Pepys recently -- I'd have to rummage thru my notes to get the citation -- that took a few scholars to task for using the diary to "prove" certain aspects of Pepys's life or personality, when in fact it's all we have as evidence for much of what he talks about -- particularly his womanizing. Circular reasoning seems to prevail more often than not (along the lines of: "he was honest about groping women or masturbating in church, so he must be an inherently honest, introspective person" -- completely ignoring that his pursuit of women was itself a dishonesty!) In any case, I love that a document which seems more certain actually exposes instabilities more readily.

Anonymous said...

I bought E. Pepys diary in full innocence.
Only when I started reading did I understand that it was a spoof. The words were not those of a young teenager.
I checked on Dale Spender's past efforts and could not help seeing how this spoof was created just to amplify and reflect her own view of women versus men. She has an agenda.
I have read Claire Tomalin's book on Pepys. It was masterful and I understand why she shied away from Spender's falsehoods.
I wonder though, what sort of riddle is Spender contriving when she introduces the Harveys; a couple never mentioned in Pepys's diary?

Ruben said...

I read and annotate in the Pepys' blog from the first day and find it fascinating. May I tell you that we use the Wheatley edition, but many of us have the Latham, and the differences are exposed whenever they appear. We cannot use the Latham everyday because it is copyrighted.
I liked very much your comments about History and the telling of "objective" history. May I comment that this problem was well presented by McLuhan some 50 or 60 years ago. Now that we are in the age of TV and images are taken by a phone, and as we believe that images we see are more "real" than words we hear or read, hoaxes are an everyday occurrence.
Concerning hoaxes, you believe not only by ignorance but also by your desire to believe that something is true. This happened with "The Elders of Zion" an apocryphal book that made the rounds between all the antisemites that were asking for such a book and more than 100 years after is still being sold.