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In September 1825, Christopher North and his cronies had three worthies in their sights: Wordsworth, Scott, and 'That Irish jackass, Martin'. [1] Richard Martin, M.P. for Galway, had carried through Parliament a bill preventing cruelty to animals, but had also 'infest[ed] the police-offices with informations' about the perpetrators of this new crime of animal cruelty (NA i 31n.). Always a keen predator of Whig politicians, Wilson scented blood, and in a hot September Nox [2] had his equally sporting alter ego, North, incite the exasperated drovers of Britain to rise up in defence of their time-honoured custom of 'banging the hide of an over-fed ox': on hearing Tickler's account of Martin's 'insufferable idiotism', North asks simply, 'Why don't they murder him at once?' (NA i 32). Idiotism seems to have been the infirmity of the month: a page or two later, it is 'Wordsworth [who] often writes like an idiot', whose 'verses are becoming less and less known every day', and who has become a farmyard spectacle among 'your great bawling He-Poets from the Lakes, who go round and round about, strutting upon nothing, like so many turkey-cocks gobbling with a long red pendant at their noses' (i 34,36). [3] Clearly, there is more than one way of being cruel to animals.

Wordsworth was a poet well seasoned in insult and not much given to lawyering. However, the Honourable Richard Martin, M.P., was not so quiescent, and threatened litigation. When it 'look[ed] as though Blackwood might be forced to reveal that Wilson was the author', the author's reaction was both bizarre and highly characteristic: 'Wilson took to his bed in despair and wrote to Blackwood that, on learning of the matter, "[he] was seized with a trembling and shivering fit, and was deadly sick for some hours…. To own that article is for a thousand reasons impossible. It would involve me in lies abhorrent to my nature. I would rather die this evening."' [4] Not for the first time, a cornered Wilson threatened to commit suicide. One of the 'thousand reasons' that made owning the article impossible was presumably that Professor Wilson had only just returned from a visit to the Lakes, where he had been a guest at a gala gathering in honour of Scott and Canning, and then been privately entertained by the great He-Poet himself, William Wordsworth. [5] In this context, Wilson's irritability is entirely understandable: to one of his temperament, few things would have been more galling than witnessing the triumphs of those whose society he had coveted but not quite succeeded in winning. [6] Coming back north of the border to face again the 'tussle' of professional life, Wilson was able to vent his spleen in a Noctes attack on 'the arrogance of the stamp-master' and 'lyrical ballad monger' who 'sneers at almost every profession but his own' (NA i 37)—a sure sign that the Lake Poet had permitted himself some cutting remarks about Edinburgh Reviewers. [7] Wilson's trump card was the anonymity into which, as an Edinburgh reviewer, he could at once retreat—except that, this time, thanks to 'That Irish jackass, Martin', his cover was apparently about to be blown.

This little episode raises two of the governing principles of Wilson's writing life: the use (or abuse) of anonymity and the underlying risk of exposure. [8] That Wilson saw the publication of his name as 'involv[ing him] in lies abhorrent to [his] nature' suggests how much his anonymity allowed him in the way of transgression, or of unacknowledged crossings-over into morally irresponsible and impure territories. There is even an odd sense in which Wilson remained anonymous to himself: when Alexander Blair noticed the 'voluptuous' character of his friend's fiction, he set Wilson off on another dark night of anguished over-reaction: 'I feel bitterly how my character breaks out unawares and pollutes and degrades my better aspirations, for till you told me of this, I believed that Tale to be a picture of purity and innocence.' [9] These pollutions of one aspect of the self by another it had not recognised as existing are pure Jekyll and Hyde. In this instance, though, the pathology of intimacy and repudiation, of avowal and denial, is structured by the culture of anonymous criticism.

My starting-point has been Wilson's 'fissile personality' (to borrow a phrase of Andrew Noble's), [10] or (to use De Quincey's more positive spin) his 'Proteus variety of character'. [11] My primary interest, though, lies in the forms that personality takes rather than in personality itself. I am referring to the effects produced when a particular temperament crosses into a particular culture—that is, the Edinburgh culture of anonymous and pseudonymous reviewing; [12] and Wilson as a case-study in what J.H. Alexander has (rather daringly) called 'the curious Scottish disease of pseudonymous mystification' (p.67). The emphasis, then, is on the possible formal implications of that 'disease'. And that in turn leads me to the Noctes Ambrosianae as the apotheosis of the pseudonymous-anonymous art-form, the 'art of personation'. [13]

Wilson's antics, and the risks they incurred, were constantly fed by the medium of contemporary criticism. There is no doubting the pleasure Wilson took in the boisterous liberties his art of personation afforded: Carlyle vouched for 'his countryman's "singularly vivid likeness in caricature": "Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the minor Lakers, he gave us at great length, in this serio-comic or comico-serious, vein."' [14] Nor is there much doubt that the art was consciously acknowledged by those in the know: in 1823, Blackwood was faced with Wilson's spectacularly vicious reviews of Hogg, still at this point a Noctes collaborator (so spectacular were they that Ballantyne, the printer of Maga, 'threatened to withdraw his support', and Lockhart refused to be party to 'the murder of his own dedicator'). Knowing his man, the publisher pleaded with Wilson in the following terms: 'I would anxiously entreat of you to read the article as if it were written by some other person.' [15] Blackwood must surely have been aware of calling upon Wilson's habitual technique of distributing himself among 'other persons' such as North, Tickler, and the Shepherd (to name but a few of the Noctes regulars). The anxiety of which he writes could readily have been Wilson's own also, playing as it does on the personator's risk of self-alienation or -estrangement. However, as the Martin affair registers, Wilson's chief anxiety seems to have taken a rather different form, that of self-revelation or -exposure. As pseudonymous personator, his greatest danger lay in the possibility of appearing in propria persona. And it is to this threat, of being variously identified or found out, that the personae of the Noctes are occasionally subjected.

The incorrigible reinventions of 'personality' and 'personae', the endlessly circulating opportunities for disguise and detection, cohere in the role-playing of all kinds in which the Noctes specialise; and they emerge, also, in recurrent rhetorical figures—of personation and impersonation, imposture and forgery. In February 1826, for example, soon after Wilson assumed more or less solo control of the Noctes, the Shepherd is detected impersonating the 'Editor', Mr. North - himself, of course, the impersonator of a role that was in fact retained by Blackwood. Full of mock-terror at the thought of 'being hanged for forgery', the Shepherd assumes the disguise of a 'Major Moggridge', an officer from the Castle, and a personage that has itself been lifted from some lines in Scott's Marmion (NA i 109-10). [16] Among many other points of interest, this scene underlines the ways in which the Noctes represent a surrogate or virtual version of the Blackwood empire, a sort of parallel universe in which Maga is continuously being impersonated, and its business conducted by other means—down to the nitty-gritty of contributors' terms and conditions, rates of pay, selection (and rejection) of articles, reviewing of books, distribution of copy, allocation of space, and so on. Maga's business correspondence involved multiple impersonations of the editorial role, [17] on the part of Lockhart and others as well as Wilson; but the Noctes' Toby Belch-style inversion or mirror-image of the official court stops just short of a claim to bona fide editorship (a mistaken identity that had been assumed by the short-lived managers of the journal in its pre-Maga existence). [18]

Another revealing moment comes in the Nox for April 1827, when Mr. Gurney, a short-hand writer who is imagined to have been transcribing the Ambrosial conversation verbatim all this time, is suddenly discovered by the Shepherd in his hidey-hole in a 'press' (an apt enough place, as is pointed out, for a 'gentleman o' the press'). His presence turns the whole of the Noctes into a form of personation. Like the other Noctes personae, Mr. Gurney has a historical as well as fictional existence: as shorthand-writer to the Houses of Parliament, William Brodey Gurney had carried on a family tradition (his grandfather had held the first official appointment in the trade, at the Old Bailey); and his reporting of trials had already earned him a place in the topical docu-verse of Don Juan (canto i st.189). In the Noctes, his namesake simultaneously authenticates and undermines the reality of the text's events. Mr. Gurney's expertise attests to the verisimilitude of the Shepherd's representation, 'doun to my verra spellin', as the Ettrick author wonderingly remarks. In testifying to the accuracy of the transcription, the Shepherd is also being made to subscribe to his own bucolic persona in the Noctes - a persona that is now very much under Wilson's authorial control. This authentication mischievously thematizes, and validates, the relationship of persona to impersonator, behind which lay that of the historical James Hogg to the virtual Ettrick Shepherd. And as Wilson was well aware, the uncanny ability of the Ambrosial papers to displace or transpose Hogg's 'actual' identity was a source of considerable ambivalence. [19] At the same time, however, Mr. Gurney doubly absents himself from the scene of writing, first by being declared a mute (fantastically, we are told that 'he lost his tongue early in life in Persia'), and then by running off—'a short-haun writer, but [...] a lang-legged ane'—in a manner that deliberately perplexes the account of his having 'for thae sax years past' been the guarantor of the fidelity of the Noctes: 'Well', says Tickler, contradicting himself as he speaks, 'the world must just content itself without any record of this meeting' (NA i 333-5).

A little later, in July 1827, the theme of the interchangeability of fictional and historical personality recurs. North agrees with the Shepherd that an actor's private character affects the authenticity of his stage performance, and that the 'truth' of the one lends itself to the other, 'just, my dear James, as if you were to act the principal part in that little Piece of mine, the Ettrick Shepherd' (NA ii 38). By means of that ingenuous allusion, Hogg's personation, the Shepherd, is all at once imagined as impersonating himself, and in a work written by none other than North, who is the creation, and personation, of Wilson (himself the author, equally, of both Shepherd and Editor). Immediately after this oblique validation of the 'truth' of the Shepherd's characterisation in the Noctes, Tickler asks, 'What impostor, dearest James, could personate a certain Pastor in the Noctes Ambrosiane -', to which the Shepherd sharply returns, 'Is Mr Gurney gotten intil the press again?'. Typically, however, matters are yet further complicated when North, for his part, reports that contributors to a London periodical called The Pulpit were able to submit their reviews of Sunday sermons without ever going to church, by the ingenious device of having 'each his old woman in her pew' to provide them with copy (NA ii 38). The impersonation of the Noctes persona gives way to the imposture of the press reporter (Mr. Gurney's type once again being a kind of fall guy).

One final example of the art of personation, from April 1831, suggests that, as the series aged, so its rhetorical devices established themselves as something more akin to a category of aesthetic judgement. North's aperçu, that 'There appears to be much of that kind of Imagination which consists in […] undefined incipient impersonation' (iii 227) tempts Tickler into impersonating Mr. North impersonating Milton's great 'Impersonator', Death—a tour-de-force crossing of the famous lines from Paradise Lost Book II with a Coleridgean commentary upon them: [20] 'taking North's crutch under his arm and imitating the voice, gesture, and manner of 'the "old man eloquent"'' (iii 232), Tickler observes that,

In this sublime passage, the power of Imagination is at its height. This Being, who, at the gates of hell, offers combat to Satan, has not even yet been named, as if the poet were so lost in the emotion accompanying the sight of the phantom he had himself conjured up, that even a very name had not risen yet for what was so unsubstantial. He scarcely dares to call it by the vague term "Shape;" but as soon as he does so, qualifies even that approach to substantiality, by saying, "if Shape it might be called, which shape had none distinguishable," or "substance might be called that shadow seemed." Then he adds that still farther feeling of unreality—"each seemed either," that is, substance seemed shadow, shadow seemed substance. Thus uncertain in its horror to his eyes, "black it seemed as night;" not utter darkness, but something black and grim, "darkness visible"—fierce—not as a Fury—for that would be something too definite, since the image of a fury is of something conceived to exist—but fierce as ten furies, an expression in which all individuality is lost, and nothing conveyed to the mind but an idea of aggregated and accumulated fierceness. "Terrible as hell" is still more vague, and purposely so, or rather so under the power of the emotion; yet in all this obscurity, unsubstantiality, and shadowiness, it shook a dreadful dart (observe how much effect is in that word, it), something not described by any quality, as of size or shape, but merely "dreadful"—how, why, or in what dreadful, we know not; while this motion of its weapon directs the mind to look on the Shape that brandishes it, and lo! that which seemed its head—not its head, but that which in that fury-haunted and infernal darkness seemed its head—the likeness—not the reality—but the likeness of a kingly crown had on! Poetry alone could give such an Imagination as this—for painting would at once of necessity give outlines, features, realities, which, however enveloped in obscurity, would be fatal to the fearful effect, and embody too sensibly the here almost unembodied attributes of this seeming, shadowy, threatening, scarcely-existing, yet most terrific Impersonation!

iii 232-3

On reflection, this oration turns out to contain nothing less than a septuple impersonation, like a series of Russian dolls—of North, alias Wilson, done by Tickler, alias Sym, doing Coleridge on Milton's 'terrific Impersonation', Death, a figure whose 'almost unembodied attributes' render it an archetype of 'romantic' indeterminacy—or, as the Shepherd irreverently puts it, 'a mair or less perfeck incomprehensibility': 'An' that's what you twa chiels ca' pheelosofical creetyschism?' (NA iii 233). Aesthetic finally yields to tonal ambiguity, as the Coleridgean school of criticism comes up against a caustic dose of the Ettrick Shepherd's common sense.

As the crazy complexity of this scene suggests, the Noctes characters don't just personate their 'own' historical originals, but other historical figures as well, by a species of cross-dressing or cross-addressing. Tickler's homage to Milton in the personae of North-cum-Coleridge is also a great tribute of imitation, and speaks to the establishment of a critical perspective or personality in Coleridge's own preferred style, that of conversation. The art of criticism is presented as an act, a set-piece display of a by now exemplary passage of poetry. What is on show is quite as much the impersonator as the impersonation: to Milton's Death, itself such a showy figure, is added the spectacle of North in the guise of 'the "old man eloquent"'. A repeat from an earlier Nox (see i 229), Tickler's phrase of esteem uses a sobriquet that has been attached to Milton himself, via one of his sonnets, [21] and latterly also to Coleridge, in his role as the Sage of Highgate. Tickler's critical idiom, meanwhile, seeks to be worthy both of the label and of its various representatives. And, in the process, it moves, notably, from an embodied to a disembodied state. Impersonation, or the power to imitate another as Tickler has done (the Shepherd admiringly confirms, 'I could hae sworn that you was Mr North, Mr Tickler. His verra vice!'), here outdoes or rather undoes itself, being exercised in conveying the still greater imaginative power of the 'unembodied', those im-personated effects which are the 'attributes' of 'Poetry alone'—as that art-form has been conceived by all North's shadowy surrogates, the 'eloquent' interpreters of Milton from Burke to Coleridge. The exchange of bodily confidence for mental insubstantiality indicates a good deal about Wilson's particular relationship to a 'romantic ideology': it is possible, in all these layers of disguise and their borrowed splendours, to detect something of the intellectual diffidence that accompanied the enormous physical prowess, in his pursuits as a wrestler, fisherman, and sportsman.

Turning, then, to the more anxious implications of the art of personation, I want to look at a case in which the cultivated instability of identity combines with the culture of anonymous reviewing to produce some quite startling formal effects. This episode, from the December 1828 Nox (NA ii 123ff.), can be seen as an allegory of the persona-cum-anonymity junkie who finds himself exposed to critical public gaze, and in the process both loses all claim to 'personal identity' and has a false identity imposed upon him. It starts with the Shepherd teasing his bachelor companion, North, first with a prurient picture of 'womankind', and then with an account of how young women make a mock of old men once the latter's backs are turned. North, apparently sanguine, responds, 'Why, my dear James, it does one's heart good even to be ridiculed in the language of Poetry'; and goes on to tell a lengthy prose story against himself: 'You would cackle, my dear James, were I to tell you how the laugh went against me, t'other day on the Calton Hill':

I had chanced to take a stroll, James, round the Calton Hill, and feeling my toe rather twitchy, I sat down on a bench immediately under Nelson's Monument, and having that clever paper the Observer of the day in my pocket, I began to glance over its columns, when my attention was suddenly attracted to a confused noise of footsteps, whisperings, titterings, and absolutely guffaws, James, circling round the base of that ingenious model of a somewhat clumsy churn, Nelson's Monument. Looking through my specks—lo! a multitude of all sexes—more especially the female—kept congregating round me, some with a stare, others with a simper, some with a full open-mouthed laugh, and others with a half-shut-eye leer, which latter mode of expressing her feelings, is, in a woman, to me peculiarly loathsome [...]

At this point in the comedy, we might pause to notice the sexual deflation (an heroic 'Nelson's Monument' jocularly emasculated to a 'model of a somewhat clumsy churn'); the anonymous newspaper man's dawning awareness that he is now an object of public criticism and comment; and the sexual fear bordering on loathing which accompanies his exposure, and which is located in the eyes and mouths of women's faces, frozen in various stages of mock-arousal—'a stare', 'a simper', an 'open-mouthed laugh', 'a half-shut-eye leer'. All of which unnerving attention rides on a certain mercenary assessment of his own lack of currency: 'ever and anon I heard one voice saying, "He is really a decent man;" another, "He has been a fine fellow in his day, I warrant;" a third, '"Come awa, Meg, he's ower auld for my money;" and a fourth, "He has cruel grey-green een, and looks like a man that would murder his wife."'

The Shepherd requests, and gains, an explanation:

Why, James, some infernal ninny, it seems, had advertised in the Edinburgh newspapers for a wife with a hundred a-year, and informed the female public that he would be seen sitting for inspection—[...] From the hours of one and two in the afternoon, on the identical bench, James, on which, under the influence of a malignant star, I had brought myself to anchor.

NA ii 123-4

Despite being a 'septuagenarian' (ii 29), North's matrimonial prospects crop up quite frequently in the Noctes. Now, though, he is in the position of unknowingly personating a man in search of a wife, his identity apparently 'identical' with his absent original, the Edinburgh advertiser. Moreover, North has been hoist by his own petard: his carrying the Observer was a sign of his minding his own business as a journalist; but by the public nature of print it has become everyone else's business also. Here in fantasy or farce is the reviewer's nightmare: Maga turning against its master, the publishing man undone by his own print medium, the anonymous reviewer publicly reviewed. The self-referentiality of the situation (and its 'dyer's hand' aspect also) is immediately seized on when Tickler likens North's position to appearing 'In the character of opening article in the Edinburgh Review'—exposed, that is, to the critical gaze of all the reading world. [22] But in this account such journalistic anxieties are overlaid with sex-shame: the Shepherd sees North as threatened with the fate of Orpheus at the hands of the Maenads—'You hae reason to be thankfu' that they didna tear you into pieces'—and North's own castration anxiety gets expressed, properly for a publisher, as a loss of speech, a loss that is compensated for by way of a rather clunky sort of Freudian substitution:


At last I got up, and attempted to make a speech, but I felt as if I had no tongue.


That was a judgment on you, sir, for bein' sae fond o' talkin—


Instinctively brandishing my crutch, I attacked the centre of the circle, which immediately gave way, falling into two segments [...]

ii 124

North having brought his crutch to his aid—the perpetual prop, weapon, and ally of his Noctes appearances—a mock-heroic self-assertion is underway, and the sex-war ends in a literal flight of fancy:

using the but-end of my crutch, I overthrew in an instant the few companies, vainly endeavouring to form into echelon in that part of the position, and, with little or no loss, effected a bold and skilful retrograde movement down the steepest part of the hill, over whose rugged declivities, it is recorded, that Darnley, centuries before, had won the heart of Queen Mary, by galloping his war-horse, in full armour, on the evening after a tournament at Holyrood. Not a regiment had the courage to follow me; and, on reaching the head of Leith Walk I halted on the very spot where my excellent friend the then Lord Provost presented the keys of the City to his most gracious Majesty, on his entrance into the metropolis of the most ancient of his dominions, and gave three-times-three in token of triumph and derision, which were faintly and feebly returned from the pillars of the Parthenon [...]

ii 125

North gains heroic status, sexual prowess, and royal favour, all in one fell swoop (the heroic nature of the exercise being underwritten by the epic simile that follows, in which North likens himself to 'a fine, old, bold buck of a red deer', escaping the pack of his pursuers). [23] In flight from the monstrous regiment of women, his fear of exposure is suddenly assuaged by a counter-fantasy of galloping 'in full armour'—and climaxes as, in a personation of majesty itself, he comes to a standstill 'on the very spot' where George IV was presented with the keys of the City, on the royal visit of 1822.

What is more, North's 'retrograde movement' contrives to indicate the whole of modern Scottish history. The reckless daring with which Darnley won the heart of Mary points to the birth of the infant James VI, whose crowning as James I of England brought about the union of the crowns; a union which has latterly brought George IV back over the Border to 'the most ancient of his dominions'. Scotland, having in a manner lost her King in 1603, has now triumphantly welcomed him home again. Crossing and re-crossing the Border, her history has confirmingly returned to where it started. Wilson's royalist and Tory agenda seems to have secured his alias and alter ego against the threat posed by the monstrous regiment of women. And yet that identity, at once national and personal, historical and professional, is at stake in ways that the escape-route cannot account for. When the Shepherd asks whether no one in the crowd knew who he was, Christopher North returns to his beleaguered situation on Calton Hill:

Their senses, James, were deluded by their imagination. They had set me down as the Edinburgh Advertiser,—and the Edinburgh Advertiser I appeared to be,—instead of the Editor of Blackwood's Magazine. The senses are the slaves of the soul, James. "How easily's a bush supposed a bear!" Yet a few voices did exclaim, "Christopher North! Christopher North!" and that magical name did for a moment calm the tumult. But forthwith arose the cry of "Imposter! Imposter!"—"Kit has no need to advertise for a wife!"—"Hang his impudence, for dauring to sham Christopher!"—"He's no far aneuch North for that!"—and in vain, during one pause of my combat and career did I make an appeal to the Public in favour of my personal identity. It would not do, James. I appeared to be a Perkin Warbeck detected; and had nearly paid the penalty of death, or, in other words, forfeited my existence, for merely personating myself!

ii 126

In a catastrophic loss of professional status, North is turned from Blackwood's Editor into Edinburgh Advertiser, his name swallowed up in that of an inferior sort of paper. Faced with this evidence of mass delusion, North remarks '"How easily's a bush supposed a bear!"'. 'Philosophical criticism' lends him a crutch of a kind, as he reaches, in King Theseus' famous speech in Act V of A Midsummer Night's Dream, [24] for a Romantic aesthetics of projection that might explain the crowd's behaviour. But the central irony of the Noctes—that they are entirely composed of impersonations—has come home to roost. North vainly appeals 'in favour of [his] personal identity': in textual terms, of course, no such appeal is possible. In his role as a Noctes persona, North has no personal identity. At the same time, his role in the Noctes requires that he 'personate' others, be they the Editor of Blackwood's Magazine, or John Wilson of Elleray. And it is this kind of double life, with its endless crossings-over between literary and historical subjects, that makes an already unstable or multiple 'identity'-question yield to the more troubling issue of where personation ends and imposture begins. When North is exposed as 'a Perkin Warbeck detected', he has crossed over the border in more than one sense. Warbeck was the impostor who claimed the crown of England from Henry VII, [25] and was hanged, drawn, and quartered, in 1499; but not before he had attempted to raise support, in France, in Ireland, and then, more successfully, in Scotland. [26] North's earlier, royalist fantasy, in which his flight from the women re-enacted Darnley's valour and hence the Scottish succession to the English throne, is overwritten with the name of a base pretender. Having taken a royalist stand against his persecutors out of loyalty to George IV, he now finds himself impersonating a traitor. As it happens, the pretender's claims were very much in the air at this time. Following Horace Walpole's casting of Historic Doubts (1768) on Richard III's role in the murders in the Tower, Peter Bayley had just published a revisionist apology for Perkin Warbeck (1821-25); and Mary Shelley was at this precise moment finishing her own heterodox historical romance, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), in which the eponymous hero, who makes his appearance at the court of James IV of Scotland in volume II (chap. xi), is represented as the true heir to the throne. [27]

Still more bizarre and unsettling to North than his own counter-factual identification with Warbeck, is the crowd's accusation that he is shamming himself: '"Hang his impudence, for dauring to sham Christopher!"—"He's no far aneuch North for that!"'. In this extraordinary moment, ordinary townsfolk are heard punning on North's name, presumably in order to suggest the superior wit and cultivation of Edinburgh in relation to more 'northerly' territories, or the parts that literary magazines don't reach, and where such shamming and imposture might go undetected or unreproved. (North's tautological emphasis - '[I] had nearly paid the penalty of death, or, in other words, forfeited my existence, for merely personating myself' - is curiously suggestive of the case of John Lennon, who was murdered as an imposter by a man who believed that he was the real John Lennon.) However, North's usurpation by his own fictitious identity points to a logical impossibility of another sort: [28] for it begs the question as to how a figure who is already a personation can be charged with impersonating himself at all. And behind that question lies the question of identity per se, or rather of the multiple identities which the art of personation throws up: which, if any, of Wilson's personations is at stake?

North's 'personal identity' is explicitly named, but only in the context of an ineffectual 'appeal to the Public' for its confirmation—a gesture which reveals the extent to which he is dependent for his identity on its perception by others. But the more considerable issue here is not North's 'personal identity', but Wilson's impersonal one. The hazard, in other words, appears to be Wilson's art of personation itself. What seems to be at stake is not so much North's likeness to himself, as Wilson's capacity for likeness to another or to others. And this Wilsonian concern is entirely reliant for its 'existence' upon anonymity or personal non-identity.

The allegorical structure of the episode becomes clearest at this point. Above all, North's anxiety of exposure on Calton Hill allegorises the awkward position of the Blackwood's reviewer, or Noctes persona, who finds himself at once infamous and non-existent, impersonating and anonymous, imposing and imposed upon; and whose would-be commanding view of the objects of his critical gaze is suddenly and inexplicably externalised in the eyes of others, all turned in narrow focus on himself. Only in the safe and clubbable retreat of the tavern does a more flattering explanation emerge:

Mr Ambrose, with his usual ingenuity, immediately on hearing the recital of our adventure [...] sphinx-like solved the riddle, and devoutly congratulated us on our escape from a Public justly infuriated by the idea, that a counterfeit of Us had thrown himself for a wife upon their curiosity [...]

ii 126

In the teeth of all his non-self-identity, North produces a final, weirdly pompous shift to the royal 'we': a collective pronoun to stand against the tribunal by which a journalist lives or dies, the 'Public'; and, equally important, to stand for all that is wrapped up in the multiple persona of 'North' himself. By this slender means, instability and Legitimacy seem to hang together, the stability of the Crown to be staged by the multiplicity of identity; and, once again, historical and literary borders are being crossed and recrossed. North's upper case 'Us' serves to play up the plurality of the personae in which he has become so entangled; yet it does this, as it were by regal assent, in order to play down their destabilising consequences. The loyal and Ambrosial servant moves to reinstate royal protocol by addressing North in his own plural person as 'Editor' of Maga.

This collective persona is an attested element of contemporary journalism: Coleridge is the best commentator here, remarking, in The Friend, on the 'morbid hardness produced in the moral sense by the habit of writing anonymous criticisms, especially under the further disguise of a pretended board or association of Critics, each man expressing himself [...] as a synodical individuum'. [29] That 'synodical' establishment is almost certainly couched mainly as a counter-attack against the identification, begun by Francis Jeffrey in launching the Edinburgh Review, of Coleridge and others as a 'sect' of 'dissenters from the established systems in poetry and criticism'. [30] But the invention of a collective identity is a further crucial development in the reviewing persona. Whether for purposes of concealment or display, collectivity and 'disguise' are expressly recognised, not just as techniques in, but also as metaphors for, the business of anonymous criticism. That flagrant and yet unattributable affair is again best described by Coleridge, in a Notebook entry this time, dating from November 1803:

Some flatter personally; & then use the invisible Cap of the Reviews, & Magazines, to attack & calumniate / Fellow with a Grenadier's Cap on, with the word "Invisible" in large Brass Letters. This the Invisible Knight / [31]

Coleridge's emblazoned Knight is a walking self-contradiction, his invisible writing a mocking and mock-chivalric inversion of an honourable code. And indeed, the art of personation is guaranteed only by such trick declarations of invisibility. [32]

There are some interesting cultural implications in all of this: namely, that at the very moment at which authorship of a heroic-'romantic' kind is beginning to be established, so too is the practice of anonymous literary criticism. It is something like this 'Invisible Knight' paradox that North finds himself representing in the shape of the advertiser in search of a wife. As Invisible Knights, the Blackwood's authors—and the authors of the Noctes in particular, perhaps—are striving away from a personal declaration of authorship; and this development may be seen as having a more dignified outcome in the practice of 'impersonal' criticism. At the same time, however, the incorrigible Blackwood's habit of personation constantly appeals, in a manner that is variously facetious, ironic, or jibing, to the 'personality' that is everywhere spoken against; [33] and its play of personae within personae gives formal and fictional recognition to the personality-driven basis of modern writing and reviewing. When Wilson elects to use the Preface to the new year issue of 1826 to make an aggressive apologia for Blackwood's past and present conduct, he recalls how the journal had to face down, in its Whig and Cockney critics on the Edinburgh Review and London Magazine especially, 'a clamour immediately of personality, insolence, impertinence, assassination, with many other crimes of similar atrocity' (Blackwood's 19 [January 1826], p. xi).

The 'crime' of 'personality' brings us back to the case of Perkin Warbeck and so, in a roundabout way, to Wilson's own peculiar history. If his persona 'North' found himself being an impostor to or of himself, it was in his other identity, as the holder of the Chair in Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh (a post he filled from 1820-1851) that Wilson was, in David Daiches' words, 'an absolute impostor'. Dependent for his every lecture 'on material supplied to him regularly by a friend', [34] Wilson's tenure was, as Hugh MacDiarmid scathingly remarks, 'thirty-one years of the most arrant humbug'. [35] As elsewhere, though, this aspect of the 'fissile personality' was not remotely akin to insipidity or uncertainty: on the contrary, it summoned the greatest imaginable vivacity and vigour; and Professor Wilson's lecturing style was a roaring success. Turning the problem on its head, we might say that it was also a most splendid example of Wilson's art, and of the tradition of rhetoric to which the Noctes pay extensive tribute, turning professing and professionalism into personation and impersonation. The total effect is surprisingly camp; but such performances are perhaps not the least, if the latest, gift of the Scottish Enlightenment.