Revisiting a mysterious manuscript

Cowell manuscript


On Wednesday 19 June four panellists gathered to discuss Senate House Library’s MS294, the so-called “Cowell manuscript”. Was this manuscript ascribing Shakespeare’s plays to Bacon the record of two lectures delivered by James Corton Cowell to the Ipswich Philosophic [sic] Society in 1805, as it purports to be, or was it a much later creation? If the former – assumed from the time that the manuscript entered public ownership and was publicised by Allardyce Nicoll in the Times Literary Supplement of 25 February 1932 – it is the earliest written evidence of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship. If not, the earliest evidence for the theory remains Joseph C. Hart’s Romance of Yachting (1848), and mystery surrounds the Cowell manuscript: who forged it and why?

James Shapiro of Columbia University used vocabulary (the phrase “very unromantic”) and the presence of information about Shakespeare in the manuscript which was unknown in 1805 to expose it as a fake in his book Contested Will (2010). In the symposium he expanded upon evidence from the book, showing use of the terms “unromantic” and “very unromantic” from 1700 to 1930 to demonstrate how minimal the use was before the 1820s, and showed how the lectures used material first published by Sir Sidney Lee in 1880. The manuscript was bequeathed to the University of London by Edith Jane, Lady Durning-Lawrence. How it entered her, or her Baconian husband Edwin’s, possession, is unclear. Drawing upon previous publications, especially her transcript of the manuscript with an editorial introduction in Shakespeare Survey, 65 (2012), Karen Attar talked about the Durning-Lawrences and the manuscript. Nicholas Eastaugh of Art Access & Research had examined the ink used to write the manuscript. It was iron gall with silver in it, attributable to the manuscript having been written by a pen with a silver nib. Iron gall ink and pens with silver nibs were used in 1805 and have been used since, such that tests were inconclusive.

Paper analyist Peter Bower talked fascinatingly about the strong, stable wove drawing paper used to write the manuscript. It does not fit the standard paper sizes of the early nineteenth century, and contains no watermark. The paper is identical to paper produced after 1815 by Smith and Allnutt at the Great Ivy Mill in the Loose Valley, near Maidstone in Kent. Bower’s thesis is that the date and name in the watermark had been cut off, and that the reason the paper is not a standard size is because it was cut. Curiouser and curiouser …

The fascination of the topic was evidenced from the fact that the audience remained alert for two hours. Questions evidently remain, and further investigation remains to be done.


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