Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Those lines by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, written while she was being courted by Robert Browning, and among the most famous in all of poetry, open one of 44 of her love poems that are collectively known as Sonnets From the Portuguese. The Sonnets were first published in book form in 1850, as part of the second edition of her collected poems. At least that’s what poetry scholars and bibliophiles thought for several decades until Thomas J. Wise announced that he had discovered a previously unknown earlier printing.
Wise was a celebrated British collector of rare books and manuscripts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the catalog of his private library filled 11 volumes. In 1885 an author named W.C. Bennett showed Wise several copies of a 47-page, privately printed pamphlet of the Sonnetsdated 1847 and marked “not for publication.” Private printings of literature were not unusual in that era. What was unusual was the discovery of a previously unknown collection of such important poetry that predated the first known public printing. Wise immediately recognized the rarity and value of the pamphlets, and bought one for £10 (about $1,200 today). Over the ensuing years, Wise discovered other previously unknown collections of minor works by major authors, including some by Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Collectors and libraries snapped up those volumes, and Wise’s fame and wealth grew.
At first glance, Wise’s items seemed authentic, especially to a buyer considering just one pamphlet at a time. Each one fit nicely with the rest of its author’s body of work. For example, the date of Browning’s private printing of the Sonnets corresponded with a gap of four years between when the poems were finished and when they were officially published. The pamphlets also appeared to be authentic in format and typography—just how an expert would expect them to look and feel. Although the steady stream of new discoveries by Wise did raise isolated suspicions that something might be amiss, the pamphlets he distributed were broadly respected as genuine for decades.
Some 45 years after Wise found the private edition of the Sonnets, two British book dealers, named John Carter and Graham Pollard, decided to investigate his finds. They re-examined the Browning volume and identified eight reasons why its existence was inconsistent with typical practices of the era. For example, none of the copies had been inscribed by the author, none were trimmed and bound in the customary way, and the Brownings never mentioned the special private printing in any letters, memoirs, or other documents.