All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

Tuesdays are a good day. I teach a class in the morning, and it is hard work. When I get done I feel relieved and kind of righteous, that pleasant sensation of having done something relatively difficult relatively well. On the way out of the building, there’s a little charity book stall, and I often find something I want to read there, or at least something I want to read enough to spend 50p on it. 

Last week’s acquisition was this: 

Image

 

It also has a modern edition, which I gather is slightly different. 

Now, I love this type of thing. Everyday records by whoever from whatever period are completely fascinating to me — the little details, the turns of phrase. I love all that stuff. At great length it can get tiresome (see Bird, Isabella) but for a little dip-into-it 50p job like this? Perfect. 

Except it’s a hoax. 

Or at least, it certainly appears to be. And I have to admit that when I opened it up I was like “hey, this Herefordshire dialect is very different from the 18th-century English I’m used to reading.” But then, it might have been, mightn’t it? 

Now, I have to admit that there is no direct evidence to prove it is a hoax. But there’s also no direct evidence that it’s anything else — no one but the person who “transcribed” it ever saw the original, for instance. 

There are several things that are interesting about this thing. First off, the back of the edition I have gives absolutely no impression that there’s anything controversial about it. It just shows the beginning of the text: 

Anne Hughes

her boke

in wiche I write what I doe

Plus the usual blurbs and what have you. But once you get into the introduction, that’s another story. The whole thing is an exercise in trying to claim that this thing might maaaybe be authentic, using the most alarmingly bogus argument ever, i.e. that the author, Jeanne Preston, couldn’t possibly have had the skill to fake something like this. I’m talking the full-on Cottingley Fairies argument. If that’s your go-to argument, you’re in bad trouble. 

But belief in the book isn’t confined to the person writing the intro, who could be argued to have some incentive to believe in it. There’s a whole website devoted to vindicating the Anne Hughes diary, despite the strong reasons for skepticism. Even they don’t think the whole thing’s authentic; they think that Preston transcribed a real document but added her own interpolations, including stuff she invented and stuff that she copied out of other texts (notably the recipes). And there’s a lot more special pleading — so, like, for instance, the dates don’t line up with the year the book is supposed to be for — so maybe it’s for a different year but was mislabeled! There are errors? Well, Jeanne Preston had really bad handwriting! You get the idea. So why, given that they admit Preston falsified the text at least a bit, do they think there’s a real thing in there? 

Many people, foremost among them the Anne Hughes Research Team, believe there is the ‘voice’ of a real person speaking through the pages of this book. It sounds more clearly in the opening sections than it does in other places, but there is a ‘voice’.

There is a voice. 

That’s what we want, after all — to hear the voice of some long-dead person speaking to us (in ways that mostly confirm our prejudices about the period but have just enough surprising material to make us feel the confusion of authenticity, I would say if I were feeling cynical). And I think we’re willing to overlook a lot to hear that individual’s voice. 

Because of course we fall for that “voice” a lot in real life. The people who trick us all have that same voice. He sounded so genuine … 

but if I thought there was a voice, I would be reluctant to give it up too. 

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All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

2 thoughts on “All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

  1. Undine says:

    Some years ago, a book called “Like Some Green Laurel” was published. It was allegedly a collection of letters written by a 19th century woman named Margaret Johnson Erwin. (The actual letters themselves were never produced.) It was proven quite conclusively that the letters were fake (they include all sorts of ludicrous historical errors,) but for reasons that frankly escape me, the book remains in print.

    I wonder how many books like that and the one you cite are out there?

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