Winner of The London Magazine Short Story Competition 2016.
Sometime between 1858 and 1864, Emily Dickinson embarked upon her self-publishing career. She copied out in her best handwriting about half of the poems she had written thus far (around eight hundred of them). She wrote them onto sheets of embossed, cream and blue-ruled stationery which she folded and sewed together with twine into 40 little booklets.
Sometime in 1886, after the poet had died, Emily’s sister, Lavinia, discovered the 40 little booklets in a wooden chest in The Homestead, the big house on Main Street in Amherst; the house where Emily was born and the house that she had hardly left for the last thirty years of her life.
Sometime in 1889, Emily Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, snipped all the booklets apart. Mabel was pragmatic. She knew no-one would be able to decipher the poet’s sloping handwriting so spent many hours copying the poems onto plain paper, using that marvellous new invention, the typewriter. Mabel was scrupulous. She translated the poet’s favoured form of punctuation – the dash – into modes more pleasing to the Victorian eye. She allocated titles to the poems – an embellishment with which Emily had dispensed – and grouped them into themes: ‘Nature’, ‘Death’, ‘Love’. Mabel was largely responsible for the unassumingly titled volume Poems by Emily Dickinson, published by Roberts Brothers, Boston, in 1890.
Sometime earlier this year, Arnicot walked into my office and placed a little booklet on my desk. Arnicot wasn’t his name any more than my name was the name on my office door, but I had to be content to call him that as it was the only name he answered to. I never waste time speculating on what his ‘real’ name might be because what people think of as a ‘real’ name is only a name that someone else has given to you; your real name could just as easily be the one you have given to yourself.
It was a tiny booklet. Sheets of embossed, cream and blue-ruled stationery, folded over to make pages. The pages held together by twine. On the pages, sloping handwriting, more printed than cursive, with looping capitals in an outbreak of Random Capitalisation. I made out Humming Bird, Morning, Cochineal. With a little more effort, I deciphered Keepsakes, Ebon, Storm.
‘Where did this come from?’
‘An attic in Saint Petersburg’, he said.
‘Clever’, I said. Attics always had an air of plausibility and, if the attic was Russian, then the people who owned the attic might not understand English, might not waste time translating what could turn out to be a collection of recipes, perhaps. The handwriting was disjointed, difficult enough to decipher even for a native speaker. Why make the effort if the language was not your own?
‘I like the paper,’ I said. It was subtly browned toward the edges. ‘No tea. No vinegar. No coffee. Nice’. I can tell these things because, you see, I happen to know nearly all the ways you can make paper seem older than it is. I also know all the ways they will test paper to see if it is a forgery. In fact, I helped invent some of those methods. You can be sure that if I were ever to forge something, the tests that I helped devise would not reveal it as a fake. But I am not a forger. Arnicot is the forger. I am just the salesperson.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a forgery of an Emily Dickinson poem. Indeed, one of the earliest transactions between Arnicot and myself had been an Emily Dickinson poem: eight lines on the back of a twice-folded piece of paper that at least once in its history had been used as a shopping list. The paper was found in the back of a photograph album in a junk store in Boston, an album that could patently be traced to the descendant of a woman who had lived in Amherst at a time when it was possible for her to be the recipient of an Emily Dickinson poem. You only had to send the Queen of Recluses a plate of shortbread, it seems, and back would come a stanza thanking you for your consideration. The provenance was practically perfect.
For a successful forgery, you need paper from the era, the right inks or pencil, the right handwriting style and, if it is a letter, the correct postmark and a suitable set of stamps. The paper you can get by tearing out the end-papers from books from the same decade as the forgery you want to produce; the ink you can cook in a small saucer in your kitchen. The handwriting is the tricky bit. And that’s what Arnicot does best. He hypnotises himself before he writes, so that the words stream from his pen smooth and serene, the only hesitancies those that might naturally arise from the consideration of whether to place a comma or a semi-colon, or the search for a suitable rhyme for ‘dream’. Under a microscope, you would see no tell-tale stops and gaps, no stuck-out tongue of concentration betraying itself halfway through the downward loop of a ‘y’ or the cross of an ‘f’.
You can get all of those things right, but you still need the essential ingredient: provenance. You need to be able to prove the thing is what it claims to be. Round up all the pieces of the True Cross in existence and you could build the Berlin Wall out of them. Round up all the “genuine” pieces of the Berlin Wall in existence, and you could build the Great Wall of China. That was why Arnicot went to such pains to produce the provenance for that Dickinson forgery. He made the paper and the ink but the photograph album itself was genuine: of its time. Not all the photographs were. I actually appeared in one of them, indistinguishable in my hat and gloves from a genuine Amherst goodwife of 1854.
I sold that poem to a Professor of Literature in Phoenix, Arizona. Not at auction but on the private market. The devotees of Emily Dickinson comprise a small world. Its denizens are ardent, passionate and only occasionally homicidal. They know their poems by number. Say 712 and they will tell you that they could not stop for death. Say 249 – and I always say 249 as they all prefer the Johnson numbering – and their eyes will go all soft at the thought of rowing through Eden. I know people who keep first editions in glass cases, or a fragment of Dear Emily’s dress in a bank vault. One has a shoe. I have no idea where the shoe came from. It may even be real. The manuscripts I sell them certainly aren’t.
Ours aren’t the only Dickinson inventions out there in the world. In April 1997, the expert and prolific forger Mark Hofmann managed to get Sotheby’s to accept as genuine a “new” Dickinson poem. It wasn’t a very good poem. Of course it couldn’t be. Its author was Mark Hofmann, not Emily Dickinson. Hofmann, for all his manifold talents, was not a poetic genius. Clever, though: the date Hofmann ascribed to the poem was 1871. A time when the poet was past the undoubted height of her creations and prone to a little creaking in her quatrains. Also, the handwriting was perfect. That was how she did her “e” in 1871; that was how she did her “t”. But it was the provenance that eventually did for the document. The manuscript could be traced back no further than the 1980s. Sotheby’s gave the purchaser their money back. If the forger hadn’t already been in prison for an unconnected murder, he might have had a second go: forge a letter from the 1870s, perhaps, that mentioned the poem, thus proving its age.
‘There’s no tea, no vinegar, no coffee involved,’ said Arnicot, ‘because there doesn’t need to be. This is real’.
‘You’ll never get away with it. I can understand the ambition, Arnicot, but a whole fascicle?’
‘There’s nothing ambitious about this,’ he said. ‘I know you might have certain doubts given my profession, our history, and previous business arrangements, but I was at a conference on Pushkin . . .’
‘In Saint Petersburg?’
‘Where else? I got talking to someone and here it is. From an attic. From a Bianchi descendant. It’s real.’
The thing is, I knew it could be.
Emily’s booklets were called ‘fascicles’ by her editors, although never by Emily, as she never mentioned them. The audience for this series of works was one: Emily herself. No-one else saw them while Emily was alive. The poems she sent out into the world – to friends, relatives, shortbread donors – were on single sheets.
Lavinia’s first instinct would have been to burn them. It was the practice, in those days, to return items of correspondence to the person who had written them, and to burn everything else. Besides, Emily had already made Lavinia promise the burning. Lavinia had already started burning things when she came across the fascicles.
What stopped Lavinia throwing the booklets into the bonfire was that she was convinced of Emily’s genius. She determined that the words in the fascicles should make their way into the world. Someone had to take charge of her sister’s Immortality.
Lavinia first gave a bundle of poems to her sister-in-law, her brother Austin’s wife, Sue, living just across the lawn at The Evergreens. It was a natural choice: Sue already possessed over 200 of Emily’s poems of her own, sent as short notes across the garden. When Sue wasn’t precipitate enough in arranging publication, however, Lavinia gathered up another batch. She made a surprising second choice of editor. Mabel Loomis Todd was the wife of the astronomy professor at Amherst College. Mabel never saw Emily, never came face to face, but she understood Emily’s importance. Like Lavinia, Mabel believed in Emily’s genius. So Mabel set to with her typewriter, unpinning the words that she let fly in that first publication. Poems was a huge success: the printers had to print eleven editions in the next two years.
Sue, on the other side of the lawn, was furious. Granted, Mabel was scrupulous and pragmatic, but she was already well known to Sue. Sue knew her as a home-wrecker – I think she might have even used that term – a dissolute and an adulterer. For many years, Mabel had been sleeping with Susan’s husband, Austin.
Thus began a battle between the house of Dickinson on one side and the house of Todd on the other. The acrimony and the spite lasted decades. Sue’s papers passed to her daughter, Martha Dickinson, who also published books of her aunt’s verses. Mabel kept hers and passed them to her daughter, Millicent, who published her own books. Emily Dickinson’s papers have never been brought together in one place again, not ever, not since Lavinia opened that wooden chest and decided not to burn everything inside.
This fractured entry to the world of Emily’s poetry was the parent of possibilities. Could there have been more than forty fascicles? Did someone, somewhere, in between all these accusations and acrimony, slip into a pocket a little packet tied together with twine? Did a fascicle slip between the floorboards of The Evergreens, perhaps from Sue’s wronged fingers? No documentation on these documents exists. We don’t know why Emily assembled the poems as she did; we have no diary entries, no letters, no catalogue, no index. Just the 40 fascicles themselves.
Just the 40.
Yet now Arnicot was telling me that this little booklet I held in my hands was Fascicle 41.
‘You do know Sue and Martha travelled to Europe after Austin died?’
‘I do,’ I said.
‘And there Martha married . . .’
‘Alexander Bianchi of the Imperial Horseguard . . .’
‘Of Saint Petersburg. His descendants are the people who own the attic. The provenance is impeccable.’
Of course, if it was real, Fascicle 41 was worth a great deal of money. Ever since Bill Gates bought that Leonardo daVinci notebook for thirty million dollars, the market in original manuscripts has been extraordinarily buoyant.
‘I like it,’ I said, turning through the pages. ‘That placing of the apostrophe is typically Emily and that spelling of persevered, that was an idiosyncrasy, too. Came from the New England pronunciation. Very good. Very good indeed.’
‘It’s not very good,’ said Arnicot. ‘It’s the forty-first fascicle’.
So far, I had assessed the paper, the ink, the handwriting, the Capitalisation and the spelling. I hadn’t actually read any of the poems.
‘Are you telling me that if I read this booklet, I’ll read poems by Emily Dickinson that no-one has seen? Well, that no-one has seen for a hundred years?’
‘Just one of them. The others are fair copies of ones we already know. Before you thought of Spring – that’s in there. And so is My life closed twice before its close. She laid her docile Crescent down. Others. But one that no-one has seen for a hundred years, yes.’
I closed my eyes. ‘Arnicot. Why are you doing this?’
‘I brought it to you because I always bring you my manuscripts.’
‘You always bring me your forged manuscripts. That I sell. For a lot of money. I only ever take my percentage. You’re a rich man.’ He was. Arnicot didn’t need to spend days snuffling out a source of nineteenth-century twine, of the sort that would have been available in Amherst at the time, or the paper, or put himself into a trance to channel Emily Dickinson’s rhythms and her preoccupations, her ecstasy in a sunset or the beat of a swallow’s wing, and generally busy himself with manufacturing fascicles unless I had already told him that I had a paying customer who wanted exactly one of those. Usually, he was too busy using his private jet to go to conferences on Pushkin in Saint Petersburg or expositions on Brutalist architecture in Sao Paolo. And spending his money on drugs. He bought a lot of drugs. He said it helped with the hypnosis.
‘You’re assuming this is a fake’, he said.
‘I’d be a fool not to,’ I said, ‘given the history of our professional relationship. There has been no mention of the possibility of further fascicles in any of the research, not even a slight reference’. I held up the booklet. ‘When you do these things, Arnicot, you do them to order. For money.’
‘Or to make fools of the experts – a prize in itself.’
‘Granted. Nothing like seeing something certified as genuine when you’ve written it half an hour ago’. I thought with fondness of Arnicot’s original manuscript of Poe’s The Raven. ‘But mainly to make money. Why didn’t Martha Bianchi make money out of it? Why didn’t she tear this booklet to bits and print it like she did the rest of the poems in her possession?’
‘A cherished keepsake?’
‘Are you really trying to persuade me that this is a booklet created by the Belle of Amherst herself?’
‘Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.’
‘Even a professional forger gets hold of the genuine article, occasionally, you mean.’
‘Think about it. You know what I am. The rest of the world doesn’t. You are a dealer without parallel in the world of lost manuscripts, most of which are genuine, just a few of which I supply. When I heard the rumours, I took myself off to St Petersburg, said I was acting for you. Your reputation sealed the deal. I knew you’d be interested.’
‘In the chance to read a genuine Emily Dickinson poem that no-one knows about? Of course. Over the years, I’ve become very fond of Emily. A true missing poem. To read that for the first time. To use the word I use with my customers: That would be amazing.’
‘Only if you like her poetry,’ said Arnicot. ‘Which I don’t.’
The art of successful manuscript dealing isn’t knowing what’s real and what’s forged – you can easily work that out with enough Time and enough Science – it’s knowing what people want. Once you know what they want, you can set the right price. You look into a person’s heart and gauge what they need to make them feel complete. After all, if questioned, most of my customers will admit that they will not be able to ferry these precious papers across the Styx. They simply know that for the few minutes we blink in eternity, they have seen something that no-one else has seen, or held something that made a difference to human history, or touched something that their fingers and the fingers of someone who did matter both touched., and that determines the price. The buyers know they are not important, not really, even for all the money they have. No-one will be chasing their words down the centuries after they have lived. What you sell them is a drama: that they have touched something which changed the course of history’s river. That is what they are paying for. Arnicot was very clever. To have and to hold a new poem. He knew that I would pay for that.
‘So how much are you wanting for this?’
‘Nothing? It’s free?’
‘Oh, no, there’s a cost,’ said Arnicot. ‘I just don’t want any money.’
‘I’ve got some champagne you might like,’ I said. ‘Just one of forty bottles that were bound for the court of the tsar in 1852. The ship that was carrying them foundered off the Aland Islands. The bottles were rescued from the wreckage on the sea-bed only last month. Still drinkable, apparently. You’d enjoy finding out.’
He shook his head.
‘What about a Treskilling Yellow? I have a source.’
He shook his head again. ‘I want you to read the poem then burn the booklet,’ he said. ‘That’s the price.’
I knew then that the fascicle was real.
I knew why Arnicot had set the price, too. We had had to do something similar before, when the original Seven Pillars of Wisdom turned up. The manuscript T. E. Lawrence had actually left in the refreshment room at Reading Station. The trouble was, we had already sold a faithfully recreated version, complete with the bank messenger’s bag it was lost in, to the ruler of a Middle Eastern emirate.
‘Remember,’ he said, ‘“The drops upon the Waterstone”?’
I did. It was over that manuscript that Arnicot and I had first met. He was trying to sell an original copy of this Emily Dickinson poem – which he had written only a few days before – to a rather well known university. The university had called upon me in my professional capacity to assess whether the item was genuine. It was one of Arnicot’s earliest attempts. I realised within minutes that the ink was suspect but realised in just one minute more that I might have discovered a way to earn far more money than a career as a humble document archivist allowed. I asked the library to meet the salesperson in person. That was when we agreed that I should henceforth take care of the sales – the price he was demanding was shockingly low – and he should stick to the forging. On the proviso that he improved the ink.
‘The poem you haven’t read yet. It’s got a Waterstone in it, too.’
‘Heavens to Betsy.’
The only person who had ever tested the ink on ‘The drops upon the Waterstone’ was me.
If another original manuscript mentioning a Waterstone turned up, libraries, universities and private citizens across the globe might think to do more extensive research on the papers Arnicot and I had already sold them. They hadn’t until now. That was because, until now, they had had no reason to.
Even if some of them suspected that they held fakes in their glass cases, they kept their misgivings quiet. Why? They gained importance through their precious possessions. They had scholars trooping through their halls. They had researchers making appointments to hold time-worn papers with white gloves. In short, those papers conferred prestige and thus, a steady income. If I let this booklet out into the world, their world, those institutions, their reputations would come tumbling down. The universe where Arnicot and I drank our champagne would do the same. People wouldn’t be just a bit cross. They would demand Revenge. Prison would be involved.
I didn’t ask if I could just keep the booklet to myself, put it in my own glass case. I knew the answer. What would happen if it was stolen? What would happen if I died suddenly in an unrelated incident and it fell into someone else’s hands? We couldn’t take the risk.
If I wanted to read that poem, I would have to promise to do what Emily made Lavinia promise to do all those years ago. Burn it.
I held the booklet from a Russian attic in my hands. I admired the quality of the cream and blue rules. I touched the paper Emily Dickinson had touched. I opened the fascicle and traced with my fingers her pencilled spidery script spilling across the pages. I thought of her writing these words, alone in her room, probably somewhere in the winter of 1863.
And then I began to read.
Anna McGrail is an award-winning writer, writing teacher, and editor. She has written several non-fiction books, stage and radio plays, and two novels. She lives in Brighton.