Authentic Inauthenticity: The Found Manuscript

  • Timothy C. Baker
Part of the The Palgrave Gothic Series book series (PAGO)


While the trope of the found manuscript has been aligned with Gothic since its beginnings, it is peculiarly prominent in Scottish writing.1 The coupling of the discovery of an ancient manuscript with anxiety over its authenticity can be traced to James Macpherson’s publication of the first Ossian poems in 1761, igniting a controversy that was still preoccupying Scott in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Beginning at least with Samuel Johnson’s mockery of Macpherson’s claim to have ‘two chests more of ancient poetry’ in addition to the original manuscripts of Fingal, the idea of a text that is not what it seems, or what it claims to be, haunts the national imagination.2 Reflecting on Macpherson and others, Joseph Ritson claims in 1794 that ‘[t]he history of Scotish [sic] poetry exhibits a series of fraud, forgery, and imposture, practised with impunity and success’.3 As he details at length in the introduction to his collection of Scotish Songs, this apparent tendency to forgery is a peculiarly Scottish vice:

It seems both unreasonable and arrogant that the Scotish writers alone should expect all the world to be satisfied with their naked assertions upon a subject in which interest or partiality must naturally render their testimony suspected; but, indeed, as not one single Erse manuscript, either ancient or modern, (and Mr Macpherson pretended to have several,) has been yet deposited in any public library, or even seen by any person of veracity, the question seems completely decided, though not much to the honour of that gentleman [Hugh Blair], his advocates, or adherents. (23)


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  1. 1.
    As Margaret Russett notes, the first edition of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto discusses the text’s origin in a found manuscript, while the label of ‘Gothic’ does not appear until the second edition; as such, the idea of the ‘found manuscript’ in some senses predates the founding of genre. Margaret Russett, (2009) Fictions and Fakes: Forging Romantic Authenticity, 1760–1845 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 13.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Timothy C. Baker 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timothy C. Baker
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AberdeenUK

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