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A LETTER received from a member of an eminent publishing firm who seems to take Mr. Meeson very solemnly, suggests that it may be well to preface this story with a few explanatory words. I cannot begin them better than by saying that Mr. Meeson and his vast establishment exist, so far as I am aware, in the regions of romance alone. There is no class of men more exposed to unjust accusations than are publishers, unless indeed we may give the palm to gentlemen connected with the legal professions. As a matter of fact, my experience is that publishers are in the main just and frequently generous in their dealings. Perhaps I may be allowed to give an example. Some time ago I sold a book to a well-known and respected firm for a certain moderate sum of money. The book succeeded, and that firm, to my considerable astonishment, voluntarily doubled the amount that they had agreed to pay for it. Such houses as this, however, or as that with which I have the honour to be chiefly connected, need no testimony from me.
But among the numbers who practise publishing, as in every
other branch of trade, there are “sweaters” to be found, who deal almost as harshly with the inexperienced producers of the raw literary material as Mr. Meeson dealt with Augusta.
The only part of this humble skit, however, that is meant to be taken seriously, is the chapter which tells of the loss of the R.M.S. Kangaroo. I believe it to be a fair, and in the main an accurate account of what must, and one day will happen upon a large and crowded liner in the event of such a collision as that described, or of her rapid foundering from any other cause; and it is a remarkable thing that people who for the most part set a sufficient value on their lives, daily consent to go to sea in ships, the boats of which could not on emergency possibly contain half their number.
It may be well to state that the story of the tattooed will had its origin in a trick which was played with some success upon a certain learned Q.C. by his own irreverent pupils, and not, as has been suggested, in, any French tale whatsoever. I never even heard of the very foreign story from which I am accused of borrowing an idea till long after “Mr. Meeson's Will” was written, and to this hour I have not seen it. This is not said, however, by way of claiming or disclaiming originality of incident, but merely in order to save a čertain class of critics the labour of further research. Possibly the personage in Greek history who tattooed the head of his slave may have been original, but it is more probable that he "plagiarised" the idea from the Hittite. Tattooing stories, like most other tales, have for ages been the common property of the world. I for one should not be in the least surprised to learn thát legacies, at some time or other, had actually passed under such a will.
Perhaps I may be allowed to take this opportunity to add a few words about the accusations of plagiarism which are now so freely brought against authors. Were they all true there would be no great harm done, but for the most part they are quite devoid of truth. As a rule they are laid on double lines. One is the timehonoured method of parallel columns, by which it is sought to prove that the accused author has boldly copied from some given work; the second resolves itself into a charge against him of having borrowed the leading idea, or a portion of the leading idea of his book, from a source other than his own brain. To take the last of these charges first, it will be obvious to any thinking person, that at this period of the world's history absolute originality has become a little difficult. There is no such thing as a new passion or even a new thought; and the motives that sway our hearts swayed those of all the generations that are gone. This being so, the writers of to-day can only describe what has been described before. For instance: an author invents an immortal woman living in a cave, and prematurely rejoices, thinking that at last he has found a new thing, A little reflection shows his error. Homer found such a woman in the Odyssean myth, and sung of Calypso; and doubtless the framers of the myth found her in some long-lost legend. So it is with everything; rare indeed is the book that is not a partial plagiarism, if by plagiarism is meant the dealing with what in some way has been dealt with before. Thus if the antiplagiaristic code of morals is to be adopted in all its severity, it would seem that the manufacture of fiction must come to an end. We have already in this nineteenth century reached a stage in which the use, whether by chance or design, of an incident recorded in a book of travels, is held up as an offence deserving the contempt and hatred of society. What fate then is in store for the unborn novelists of the twentieth?
But if the guardians of literary morals are by any chance driven from this position of the stolen idea, they fall back upon the parallel-column test. The two or more works in question are carefully searched, and some half dozen sentences (about three are sufficient to support a charge of plagiarism) are discovered, which, when stripped of their context and properly manipulated or even falsified, have some resemblance to each other. These are printed side by side; the exposure of the sinner is assumed to be complete, and he is duly dealt with in the article or in a series of articles. I verily
believe that any practitioner of the literary detective's sorry craft could in this fashion prove that Blackstone's Commentaries were plagiarised from the Book of Job, or the Book of Job from Blackstone's Commentaries. When applied to two works dealing with kindred subjects, the results are almost certain, and, to those who wish to be deceived, convincing. If, however, the incriminating sentences are difficult to find, nearly the same effect can be produced by a very simple method. Thus, not long ago I received what I may justly call a malignant newspaper attack upon myself, in the course of which certain points of my book, and of another from which I was accused of having plagiarised, were summed up and printed in parallel columns in such fashion as to resemble verbatim extracts to the eye of a careless reader. I handed the article to a friend. Presently he looked up doubtfully. “Certainly,” he said, "these quotations are very similar.” It is probable that many other people made the same remark and remained undeceived.*
* These and kindred exercises in the art of criticism are by no means new. Gautier, in his preface to “Mademoiselle de Maupin," which was published in 1830, alludes to them in these words: “Jusqu'ici, lorsqu'on avait voulu déprécier un ouvrage quelconque, on avait fait des citations fausses ou perfidement isolées; on avait tronqué des phrases de façon que l'auteur lui-même se fut trouvé le plus ridicule du monde, on lui avait intenté des plagiats imaginaires; on rapprochait des passages de son livre avec des passages d'auteurs anciens ou modernes qui n'y avaient pas le moindre rapport; on l'accusait en style de cuisinière, et avec force solécismes de ne pas savoir sa langue, . on assurait sérieusement que son ouvrage poussait à l'anthropopagie, et que les lecteurs devenaient immanquablement cannibales.”