The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Ghostwriting and conscience in interwar Britain: ventriloquising Georgie-the-clown


An off-cut: musings on the ethics and practice of ghostwriting in interwar Britain, courtesy of John Galsworthy:

The debate over ghosting resonated more widely in interwar Britain. John Galsworthy’s 1922 short story ‘Conscience’, for example, staged such ethical questions through the internalized moral dilemma facing journalist AP Taggart. Asked to ghost an article for The Lighthouse for the ‘celebrated clown’ Georgie Grebe to sign, Taggart enters into a prolonged period of moral reflection. The ‘scoop’ of securing ‘just the names that got the public’ for the Lighthouse’s and professional pride in a job-well-done was set against a nagging unease at the masquerade on which he embarked:

‘The Public would pay their pennies to read what they thought were the thoughts of Georgie Grebe. But Georgie Grebe had no thoughts! Taggart bit into the pipe stem. Steady! He was getting on too fast. Of course Georgie Grebe had thoughts if he signed! By writing his name he adopted them—didn’t he? His name would be reproduced in autograph, with the indispensable portrait. People would see by his features that Georgie Grebe must have had those thoughts. Trustful! Was the public so very trustful—when there was such evidence? Besides, Grebe would read his thoughts—fraudulent!’

The pragmatic reassurance of colleagues — ‘Fuss about nothing! What was the matter with deviling? With life at such pressure what else could you have?’ — went unheard. ‘A man ought to get the exact article he paid for. If not any fraud is possible’.

‘But in this Grebe article the Public would not be paying for any knowledge it contained, nor for any serious views; it would pay for a peep into the mind of their idol. “And his mind will be mine!” thought Taggart; “ but who’d spend his money to peep into my mind, if he knew it was my mind?” He got up and sat down again.’

With a public so gullible—what did it matter? They lapped up anything and asked for more. Yes! But weren’t the gullible the very people who oughtn’t to be gulled!

After informing his editor ‘Is it quite playing the game with the Public sir? … I don’t want to write anyone else’s stuff in future, unless it’s just news or facts’ Taggart is sacked — finding himself sleeping rough on the park bench in Hyde Park on which he sits to reflect on his past and contemplate his future.


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