Although Shapiro rejects the idea that important clues pertaining to Shakespeare’s life can be found in his works, it is not unheard of for an author who wishes to remain anonymous to eventually be detected through clues derived from his works. A remarkable act of literary sleuthing of this sort was carried out in the early nineteenth century by John Leycester Adolphus, a young Fellow at St. John’s College, Oxford. By 1821 a dozen of the best-selling ‘Waverley’ novels had been published, including Waverley (1814), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819). Although the Waverley novels were enormously popular, their author always chose to publish anonymously, and his identity was the subject of much public speculation. For thirteen years the true author, Sir Walter Scott, denied having written the books when anyone asked. Scott guarded his secret so jealously that a full five years after the first publication of Waverley, the only member of his family who knew the secret was his wife; his own daughter Anne once quipped over breakfast that she believed the true author was James Ballantyne. In 1627 when Scott finally admitted to being the author (he had just suffered a severe financial crisis and hoped to augment his income from the Waverley books), he declared that up until that time, only twenty or so people knew his secret, and not one had ever broken “the confidence required from them.”
Fascinated by the mystery of the Waverley author’s identity, Adolphus conducted a close examination of the novels and concluded that Scott was their most likely author. He anonymously published his theory in a small volume titled Letters to Richard Heber, Esq.: containing critical remarks on the series of novels beginning with “Waverley” and an attempt to ascertain their author (1821). In a nod to Scott’s obvious desire to remain anonymous, Adolphus did not actually name him in the book; instead he gallantly identified the Waverley novelist as the “Author of Marmion,” a popular poem which had already been printed under Scott’s name.
Over a series of eight letters to Richard Heber, an Oxford University luminary and friend of Scott’s, Adolphus used a wide array of arguments to show that Scott was the most likely author of the Waverley works. He argued that the author possessed “in a high degree, the qualifications of a poet,” rising above “the professional cant of a vulgar novel-maker.” In Letter II, he showed that Scott’s “tastes, studies, and habits of life” were mirrored in those held by the Waverley novelist:
Both Scotchmen. Habitual residents in Edinburgh. Poets. Antiquaries. German and Spanish scholars. Equal in classical attainments. Deeply read in British history. Lawyers. Fond of field sports. Of Dogs. Acquainted with most manly Exercises. Lovers of military subjects. The novelist apparently not a soldier.
One of Adolphus’s most amusing and perceptive insights concerns Scott’s love of dogs. “In short, throughout these works, whenever it is possible for a dog to contribute in any way to the effect of a scene, we find there the very dog that was required, in his proper place and attitude.”
Additional arguments based on character and background are provided in Letter III, while Letter IV begins to explore literary similarities between the works themselves including “Manner of telling a short story,” “Negligence,” “Scoticisms,” and “sometimes unusual sweetness,” to name a few. Letter V discusses similarities of dialogue; Letter VI addresses similarities in poetic imagery, narrative effects, character portrayal, use of similes, and other literary qualities; Letter VII provides additional comparisons of the authors’ story-telling habits; and Letter VIII concludes with a comparison of parallel passages, thoughts, borrowings, and other similarities of expression. Taken as a group, Adolphus’s argument is compelling, and his identification of Scott as the Waverley novelist was validated by Scott’s own confession six years later.
I’ve had Adolphus’s book on my mind lately because it is an excellent model for what I hope to accomplish in Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper. I learned about this fascinating exercise in literary detection from John Mullan's excellent book Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (2007).