There’s nothing original in a case of purloined letters

March 16, 2007

Plagiarism may seem a modern malaise, but accusations of ‘borrowing’ and outright theft of words and works were a scourge of 19th-century literary culture. Robert Macfarlane surveys opinion on literature’s oldest sin

In the autumn of 1882, Alfred Tennyson lost his temper. A Mr Dawson had written to him pointing out numerous parallels between Tennyson’s The Princess and earlier works by Virgil and Shakespeare, among others. Plagiarism was insinuated, if not openly claimed. Tennyson -habitually tolerant in his correspondences with readers - replied testily. "I deplore," he harrumphed, "the ‘prosaic set’ of belle-lettristes, editors of booklets, bookworms, index-hunters, or men of great memories and no imagination, who impute themselves to the poet, and so believe that he, too, has no imagination, but is forever poking his nose between the pages of some old volumes in order to see what he can appropriate!"

Plagiarism accusations were a scourge of 19th-century literary culture. Byron would not receive interviewers in his library in case they noted the titles of the books on his shelves and were thus able to make specific plagiarism claims against him. In the early 1800s, it was possible to work as a literary journalist reporting only on suspected plagiarisms - rather like being a detective with a specialism in infidelity cases. Thomas De Quincey, writing in 18, railed against "the thousands of feeble writers" who "subsist by detecting imitations, real or supposed".

Seven years later, however, De Quincey would denounce his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge (recently dead) as a plagiarist, in two long essays for Tait’s Magazine.

To look back at the 19th century is to be reminded that our contemporary obsession with plagiarism is nothing new. But then plagiarism is, as the old quip has it, literature’s original sin. Accusations of literary theft go back almost as far as written authorship: the first recorded usage of the term "plagiary" comes in an epigram by Martial from the 1st century AD. Controversies about what it might be inappropriate to appropriate have seethed away in every literary culture. In several ways, plagiarism is a cultural phenomenon that repeats itself.

Unmistakably, plagiarism sensitivity still runs high today. Despite the spread of open-source software, copyleft, music sampling and Wikipedia, we maintain a cultural allergy to literary unoriginality. The past decade in particular has seen a rash of plagiarism accusations, including the two most notorious cases of recent British letters.

In 1997, an Australian academic called John Frow claimed that Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders (1996) was structurally "plagiarised" from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). The accusation was asinine: as the Belgian-Australian writer Pierre Ryckmans nicely put it, "it betrayed a level of understanding of the creative process that only a professor of deconstructive semiotics could reach".

Then last December, Ian McEwan was reported to have made improper use of No Time for Romance (1977) by Lucilla Andrews, a memoir of wartime nursing in London, for his novel Atonement (2001). McEwan, however, had been scrupulous in acknowledging his use of Andrews. Even the supposed victim would not commit herself to a j’accuse . Nevertheless, the "scandal" - as it was inevitably rechristened - made big news in Britain and the US: the Mail on Sunday , vigilant and righteous as ever in its role as moral policeman, gave the story substantial coverage. Well-known writers spoke out in defence of McEwan - Zadie Smith, John Updike, Martin Amis, even the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

What is most interesting about these episodes is not the alleged impropriety (there was none in either case) but the magnitude of the cultural reaction. We are - we remain - fascinated by plagiarism. It is an infraction that compels our attention, that incites in us an almost prurient curiosity. A hint of this can be found in the etymology of the word itself: it derives from the Latin plagiarus , which means a slave-napper or child-napper. Although plagiarism has been thoroughly defelonised - you cannot be prosecuted for plagiarism, only for copyright infringement - some atavistic taint of that early word-history remains. This is a crime, our reaction suggests, whose severity is comparable to the theft of a child.

As I discovered while writing a book on plagiarism, it is also a subject about which it is hard to say anything new. Make a proposition concerning plagiarism, and you find it attached to a paper-clip chain of precedents. "If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research," wrote Wilson Mizner of academics. It’s a nice bon mot , for sure, but doesn’t it closely recall the poet Rupert Brooke’s remark that "originality is only plagiarising from a great many"? Which is itself not far from a one-liner by Voltaire. And so the chain extends ever further backwards. Writing about plagiarism has become so self-conscious of its own belatedness, in fact, that it has whelped a sub-genre - the essay on plagiarism that is composed entirely of the words of previous writers on plagiarism. Ten, by my quick count, have been published in the past year alone. This is not the 11th.

The same reflexive logic applies to plagiarism controversies. Each has its precursors. McEwan’s situation, for instance, can be instructively compared to the plagiarism furore over H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Haggard was accused of being a "King Plagiarist" who had improperly used facts and phrases from an African travelogue to "embroider" his novel. Well-known writers leapt to Haggard’s defence in the broadsheets.

Andrew Lang was the most indignant: "I write a novel in which a man is poisoned by curari. Am I to add a note saying ‘these details as to the Macusi tribe are extracted from Wallace, from Bates, and from Brett’s Indians of Guiana (London: Bell and Daldy, 1878) etc?’ This kind of thing is customary and appropriate in books of learning, but it seems incredible pedantry to demand such explanations from authors of works of fancy. When the scene of a story and the manners of the peoples described are not known to a novelist by personal experience he must get his information out of books. Is he bound to acknowledge every scrap of information in a preface or a note? The idea is absurd. The novel would become a treatise."

The two Victorian writers most interested in plagiarism were Oscar Wilde and George Eliot. Wilde’s literary aesthetic was founded on his inventive re-use of the words of others and his belief that originality was achieved through jinks and swerves of thought and language, rather than through quantum leaps. Throughout his career he wrote by crimping, spinning, finessing and pummelling clichés, quotations, borrowed insights and idées reçues . He would use the weight of a reader’s expectation concerning an idea or a turn of phrase to throw them further than would otherwise have been possible. Creation, for Wilde, was always reaction. He made unoriginality a conspicuous feature of his writing. He entered into a game of brinkmanship with plagiarism. The gain of this creative policy was an attractive impudence and a creative freedom - a Wildean thumbing of the nose at the plagiarism vigilantes. Its cost, however, was the near-total abolition of the distinction between meum and teum in literary property.

For George Eliot, such an abolition was intolerable. Throughout her writing career, Eliot struggled to reconcile her profound sense of the commonality of language and thought with her belief that certain thoughts and phrases were attributable to individuals. "Language belongs essentially to the community by whom and for whom it is called into existence", she wrote movingly a few years before her death. "A man’s thoughts are only partly his own; they are also the thoughts of others." Nevertheless, she maintained, premeditated plagiarism does exist: it is "the conscious theft of ideas and deliberate reproduction of them as original". As such it is a despicable crime — but it is also a rare one, "more difficult to prove, and more liable to be false" than almost any other accusation.

Her conclusion concerning plagiarism arrived at over 30 years of thought, was typically wise and commonsensical, and we would do well to heed it: "No premises require closer scrutiny than those which lead to the constantly echoed conclusion ‘He must have known’ or ‘He must have read’."

Robert Macfarlane is a lecturer in English and director of studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His book Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in 19th-century Literature is published by Oxford University Press.

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