Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Curious Case of Mrs. Chan-Toon

My mate John Herrington has a habit of asking simple questions that turn out to have complex answers. Such is the story of Mabel Chan-Toon, who has a four-line entry in Who Was Who in Literature which reveals nothing beyond three book titles and an address c/o here latest publisher. The British Library catalogue lists her full name as Mabel Mary Agnes Chan-Toon and John was quickly able to establish that her marriage, as Mary Mabel A. Cosgrove, was recorded in 3Q 1893.

Chan-Toon, the nephew of the King of Burma, was a student of law, having been awarded a second-class scholarship of 30 guineas by the treasurer and masters of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in 1886. Excellence at the Middle Temple was financially rewarded, and Chan-Toon was awarded all eight of the principal prizes open to students, one a studentship of 100 guineas in Jurisprudence and Roman Law. He was called to the Bar in January 1888 and a resolution passed at the Parliament of the Benchers of the Middle Temple "offering their best congratulations to Mr. Chan-Toon on his most distinguished career as a student of the In, and, recognizing the great honour Mr. Chan-Toon has, by his success, gained for the society, the Masters of the Bench express the sincere hope that his career throughout life may fulfil the promise of its comencement." In forwarding the resolution, Sir Henry James noted that no similar compliment had been paid to any other student.

Chan-Toon entered into some lively debate in the letters column of The Times regarding the politics and future of Burmah and, in 1892, was able to put some of his thoughts into practice when he was appointed officiating First Judge in the Court of Small Cases at Rangoon.

Some 18 months later, Chan-Toon married a young Irish girl by the name of Mabel Cosgrove. Mary Mabel Cosgrove was born in Ireland of English-Irish parents, her father, Edward, having been born in Birmingham in c.1833; Edward was married to Clara Julian (born in Cork, Ireland, in c.1846) in Kensington in 2Q 1868.

Mabel was born in Cork on 12 May 1873 and grew up in London; the family were living at 11 Chepstow Villas, Chelsea, in 1881 and, within the next few years, Edward and Clara began running a private hotel at 74 Lancaster-gate, London, where they were still active in 1905.

Mabel Cosgrove published her first novel under her maiden name in 1892, shortly before she married. It would appear that the newly wed couple remained in London. A daughter was born stillborn in 1895, at which time their address was given as 62 Inverness-terrace, London. A second daughter was stillborn in 1898, at St. Petersburgh-place, London. At that time, Chan-Toon was described as Barrister-at-Law of Rangoon.

Migration records for this period are poor but there is at least one record of Mrs. Chan-Toon travelling to Rangoon in 1897. Her husband published a number of text books on law, including The Principals of Buddhist Law, (1894) and Leading Cases on Buddhist Law (2 vols., 1899-1902) published in Rangoon. His wife, meanwhile, had produced a collection of fables and short stories entitled Told on the Pagoda (1895) under the nom-de-plume Mimosa. A second book, thought to be a novel, entitled Under Eastern Skies, was published in Rangoon in 1901.

However, the marriage between the Chan-Toons does not appear to have lasted, perhaps strained by the lack of children. In 1905, Mrs. M. Chan-Toon published her best known book, A Marriage in Burmah, in which she related the story of a girl marrying into Burmese society; the novel was reprinted both hardback, by Stanley Paul, and paperback, by Federation Press, in 1926. It was not a flattering portrayal of a marriage. In Women Under Polygamy, Walter M. Gallichan describes the novel thus:
Mrs. M. Chan Toon gives an avowed faithful account of the life of an English girl married to a Burmese husband. As husband and wife were of different race, and held very dissimilar views, the novel cannot be taken as a fair presentment of ordinary monogamous marriage in Burma. The hero is depicted as selfish and intemporate. Towards the end of the story, he deplores that he has not had a son by a native woman, and he suggests to his English wife that she should select a Burmese girl to bear him an heir. The wife indignantly refuses, and announces that she wishes to have a son by a man of her own race. At this proposal, the husband is equally affronted.
__Marriage between the Burmese, whether within or without the harem, rarely ends in the tragic fashion described by Mrs. Chan Toon in her novel.
It would appear that, by the time A Marriage in Burmah was published, the marriage of the Chan-Toons was over. Mrs. Chan-Toon divorced her husband, although, shortly after, it was noted that she was widowed.

A notice of bankruptcy was issued against her on 5 June 1907 at the instance of Mr. Charles Caney, of 8 Camberwell-green. Whether the notice was ever answered is unknown; at the time it seems that Mrs. Chan-Toon was living in Killarney, Ireland, and shortly afterwards, she travelled to America, passing through New York where her arrival was noted by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 8 January:
Miss Mary Chan-Toon, the English authoress, who has lived in many out of the way parts of the world for the purpose of securing material for her novels, arrived on the American Line steamer Philadelphia yesterday, en route to Mexico where she will write a romantic novel, picturing the life of the people in the cattle and mining districts. She will stay at the New Grand Hotel, in this city, for a few days before she leaves for Mexico.
__“I have long thought that there was rich material for a romantic novel to be found in the Mexican provinces,” said Miss Chan-Toon, “and no I am going to put my idea into execution. Many writers have given us works descriptive of that country, and its interesting people, but few have taken advantage of the possibilities it offers for romantic fiction. Also,” she added, with a laugh, “I hope to lose some of the weight I am carrying. They tell me the climate of Mexico is conducive to spareness.” Miss Chan-Toon, who was a friend and admirer of Bret Harte, is well known in this country through her novel, ‘A Marriage in Burmah,’ and other works.
A further news story appeared in the New York Times (8 June 1908) which revelaed that

MEXICO CITY, June 7. Princess Marie Chantoon, who says she is the wife of a hereditary Prince of a Burmese State, is in Belim prison, charged with blackmailing. With her is a young Englishman of good appearance and pleasing address, who gives his name as Arminie (sic) Wodehouse Pearse.
__The woman says she is a novelist, and that her books had a wide sale in the Straits Settlement. She came ostensibly to write a book on Mexico, but it is charged that she attempted to exact paid articles from many prominent foreigners.
__Owing to the fact that certain members of the Diplomatic Corps received threatening letters the affair created excitement in the capital.
Armine Wodehouse Pearse was born 23 January 1862, the son of the Reverend Robert Wilson Pearse and his wife Alice Maria (nee Wodehouse), and had worked as a journalist in New York before moving to Ireland, where he was living around 1906.

Whether "Princess" Chan-Toon's novel of Mexican romance ever appeared is unknown. Her next novel had the intriguing title Leper and Millionaire, published in 1910. That same year, Mrs. Chan-Toon (as she was still styling herself) was receiving orders from bankruptcy court, her address given on official papers as Rose Lawn, Pangbourne, Berks, lately residing at The Ferry Hotel, Cookham, Berks, and at Flat 46, Victoria-street, London, S.W. A petition from creditors had been filed in September 1910 in Reading and it would appear an adjudication was made in December that year, although the matter was not resolved until at least November 1927.

In 1Q 1911, Mabel M. A. Chan-Toon married Armine Wodehouse Pearse, but it proved to be a shortlived marriage. Armine, a man of good social position according to testimony in a later court case, was killed 12 days before the Armistice on 31 October 1918 while serving in the American Red Cross, and was buried in France.

Mrs. Pearse subsequently supported herself writing for magazines and newspapers. She had not (as far as can be seen) produced a novel since 1914, when A Shadow of Burmah was published.

In 1921 she was involved in the publication of a play by Oscar Wilde, which we will come to shortly, but her circumstances were clearly diminished. In December 1925 she stole £240 in £10 notes from an elderly, illiterate woman called Bridget Wood, with whom she was lodging. Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Wood came into possession of some securities and, in the presence of Mrs. Pearse, hid the proceeds of their sale under the mattress of her bed at Aldwych-buildings. Mrs. Pearse had absconded to Ireland (although her address, when charged, was given as Norfolk-square, Paddington), where some of the notes were changed in Killarney. When she was arrested, only £98 remained. Mabel Pearse was sentenced to six month' imprisonment.

Not long after her release, her name was once again in front of the court, although this time she herself was not. A libel action had been brought against Christopher Millard, a bookseller of Abercorn-place, Hampstead, by Methuen & Co., the publisher. Millard strongly believed that the play, For Love of the King, published by Methuen as a previously lost play by Oscar Wilde, was, in fact, a forgery written by Mabel Wodehouse Pearse. In 1925, he had been in correspondence with the publisher and had sent out a letter to booksellers in which he said:
With the assistance of Mrs. Chan Toon (Mrs. Wodehouse Pearse) this eminently respectable firm of publishers has succeeded in foisting on an unsuspecting public 1,000 copies of a book at 8s. 6d. net, for which, but for Oscar Wilde's name and the imprint of Methuen & Co., Limited, no one would have paid 8½d.
Christopher Sclater Millard (1872-1927) was somewhat eccentric, later described as "a literary recluse living in a bungalow in St. John's Wood ... a Jacobite who acknowledged Prince Rupert of Bavaria as his rightful sovereign, but later took to singing the 'Red Flag' very loudly in quiet country inns". Millard, under the name Stuart Mason, was a bibliographer of Oscar Wilde and had himself been involved in selling suspect Wilde manuscripts when he purchased (and sold on) suspect items from bookdealer William Figgis in 1922—items sold to Figgis by a conman known variously as Dorian or Sebastian Hope (thought to be Fabien Lloyd, Wilde's nephew; see, for instance, this article from the Sunday Times, 8 July 2007).

Millard issued a catalogue in early 1926 in which he sold a copy of For Love of the King. A Burmese Masque with the note "This work is now known to be a forgery foisted on an unsuspecting public by an unscrupulous woman (now serving a sentence of imprisonment for theft) and her publishers."

Messrs. Methuen and Co., Limited did not take to kindly to this description and started a libel action against Millard which came to court in November 1926.

The story begins in October 1921 when Hutchinson's Magazine published what they described as "a remarkable literary discovery" called For Love of the King by Oscar Wilde, which was prefaced by a letter written to Mrs. Chan Toon:
Tite-street, Chelsea
November 27, 1894

My dear Mrs. Chan Toon,

I am greatly repentant being so long in acknowledging receipt of "Told on the Pagoda." I enjoyed reading the stories and much admired their quaint and delicate charm. Burma calls to me.
__Under another cover I am sending you a fairy play entitled "For Love of the King," just for your own amusement. It is the outcome of long and luminous talks with your distinguished husband in the Temple and on the river in the days when I was meditating writing a novel as beautiful and as intricate as a Persian praying run. I hope that I have caught the atmosphere.
__I should like to see it acted in your Garden House on some night when the sky is a sheet of violet and the stars like women's eyes. Alas, it is not likely.
__I am in the throes of a new comedy. I met a perfectly wonderful person the other day who unconsciously has irradiated my present with sinuous suggestion, a Swedish baron, French in manner, Athenian in mood, and Oriental in morals. His society is a series of revelations.
__I was at Oakley-street on Thursday : my mother tells me she sends you a letter nearly every week.
__Constance desires to be warmly remembered, while I, who am bathing my brow in the perfume of water lilies, lay myself at the feet of you and yours.
It was implied that Mrs. Chan Toon had known the Wilde family well in her maiden days. An introduction to the book claimed that her father, Ernest Cosgrove, was a friend of Sir William and Lady Wilde and Mabel was herself "brought up with Oscar and his brother Willie".

On the surface this seems unlikely. Although Mabel was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1873, the Cosgrove family were living in Chelsea by 1881. Her father, Edward (the son of a policeman, also called Edward, and his wife Mary) had worked on the railways in Staffordshire and Warwickshire (as a clerk in Castle Church, Staffs. at the time of the 1851 census and as a railway station master, living with his brother John in Glascote, Tamworth, Warwickshire, at the time of the 1861 census).

Wilde, meanwhile, was almost 20 years older, born in Dublin in 1854 and attended Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74) and Magdelen College, Oxford (1874-78). His mother and brother, William (1852-1899) settled in London in 1879—at the time of the 1881 census he was boarding at the home of artist Frank Miles at 1 Tite-street, Chelsea, and his mother was living at 25 Richmond-road, Paddington, a widow since the death of her husband in 1876. Edward Cosgrove was shortly to open his hotel in nearby Lancaster-place, Paddington. Lady Wilde later moved to 146 Oakley-street, Chelsea, where she was living with her son William in 1891.

Although the implication in the book was that Edward Cosgrove was a friend of Sir William Wilde, that seems unlikely; that Mabel Cosgrove met (rather than was "brought up with") Wilde and his family in London in the 1880s or 1890s is, however, a possibility, given the proximity of the two families in Chelsea and Paddington and the fact that Mabel Cosgrove was clearly interested in writing, publishing her first book as early as 1892 when she was still in her late teens. Wilde married in 1883 and moved to 16 Tite-street from which address he supposedly wrote his letter to Mrs. Chan-Toon.

In 1921, following the publication of For Love of the King in Hutchinson's Magazine, the then Mrs. Wodehouse Pearse had offered the manuscript to various publishers, including T. Werner Laurie who consulted Christopher Millard as to its authenticity. Millard pronounced it genuine. Before publication, Methuen obtained the original manuscript and it was read by E. V. Lucas, chairman of Methuen, who thought it was "awful tosh" but was convinced of its authenticity and had written the introduction in which it was claimed that Mrs. Chan Toon has been raised with Oscar and Willie Wilde. The book was published in an edition of 1,000 copies in October 1922, followed by a 5s. edition in 1923; in August 1924 they sold the American rights to Putnams of New York.

It was only after Mrs. Wodehouse Pearse tried to sell him further letters from Oscar Wilde that Millard became suspicious. On 28 June 1923, he wrote to Methuen asking to see the original manuscript of the play, concluding his letter to them:
The immediate occasion of my writing to you is that yesterday Mrs Wodehouse Pearse offered to sell me half-a-dozen letters supposed to have been written to her by Wilde, all of which I have no hesitation in asserting are forgeries.
Millard compiled his various communications into a pamphlet in 1925. In court it was stated on his behalf that "In 1904 Mr. Millard began to compile a bibliography of Oscar Wilde's works, which occupied him for ten years. In the course of his investigations he came across many forgeries, a number of which he found to be in the handwriting of Mrs. Chan Toon." What had convinced him that the play was not genuine was "that the notes on the typescript were in Mrs. Chan Toon's handwriting, whereas she had told him that the writing was that of Oscar Wilde."

Counsel for Millard pointed out similarities in phrase in the letter to Mrs. Chan Toon with published work by Wilde. "I was meditating writing a novel as beautiful and as intimate as a Persian praying rug" was straight out of The Picture of Dorian Gray in which Lord Henry states, "I should like to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovely as a Persian carpet and as unreal." Letters which Millard claimed were in Mrs Chan Toon's handwriting had been sold to "a Dublin bookseller". He had also seen "hundreds of sheets of MS. supposed to be by Oscar Wilde but were obviously written by Mrs. Chan Toon. She got hundreds of pounds from publishers in London, Dublin and New York for such manuscripts. She pretended to possess the MS. for 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol,' but there was no known MS. of that work."

A number of witnesses appeared during the case, including A. J. A. Symons, who said he had "formed a very low opinion" of the play, supposedly written when Wilde was at the height of his talent (in that same year, 1894, he was busily writing The Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and A Florentine Tragedy.

Charles Evans, a director of William Heinemann, had also been approached by Mrs. Chan Toon but Evans "did not form a very favourable opinion of her. She was not a lady calculated to inspire confidence". Ernest Webster, of Methuen, also remembered her as "an eccentric looking person with a parrot on her shoulder".

The case hung not on whether the book was a forgery but whether Methuen & Co. had published it with fraudulent intent. The jury took 45 minutes to find for the plaintiffs and Methuen & Co. was awarded £100 damages, with costs, and an injunction was granted against Christopher Millard from making similar statements about the publisher "foisting" the book "on an unsuspecting public".

What happened to Mrs. Wodehouse Pearse after that is unknown. Her parents had, many years before, moved to Kingston, Surrey, where her mother, Clara, died in 1910, aged 64, and her father, Edward, soon after, in 1913, aged 81. A search of UK death records from 1927-53 proved futile—but from around 1908, Mabel Mary Agnes Wodehouse Pearse would appear to have lived, at least in part, in Killarney, Ireland, and it is likely that it is in Ireland that any record of her death will be found.

What Was the Verdict? (as Mabel Cosgrove). Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1892.
Under Eastern Skies. Rangoon, Hanthawaddy Press, 1901.
A Marriage in Burmah. London, Greening & Co., 1905.
Leper and Millionaire. London, Greening & Co., 1910.
Helen Wyverne's Marriage. London, Digby, Long & Co., 1912.
Love Letters of an English Peeress to an Indian Prince. London, Digby, Long & Co., 1912.
A Shadow of Burmah. London, Digby, Long & Co., 1914.

Told on the Pagoda: Tales of Burmah (by Mimosa). London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1895.
The Triumph of Love, and other stories. London, Greening & Co., 1906.


  1. Fascinating account! I notice that the play is still ascribed to Oscar Wilde, and that good reads still records it as a gift from Wilde to the family friend Mrs. Chan Toon. I guess we'll never really know the truth!

  2. But here the play is listed as by Mabel Cosgrove Wodehouse Pearse. So who actually wrote it?

  3. And, apparently, while in Mexico she was imprisoned on the charge of blackmail (along with her soon to be second husband)! An interesting life.

  4. Geoffrey Beare24 Oct 2011, 14:06:00

    The story 'For Love of the King' by the author of 'Told on the Pagoda' was published in The Idler magazine in April 1900 with illustrations by Henry Ospovat. So the original story is by Mabel and may well have been adapted for the stage by OW.

  5. Mrs Chan-Toon may have had a story published in 1900 but according to her evidence in court she claimed she was sent the play by Wilde in 1894 (whose letter is reproduced in the article). If the story is credited to her without any note that it is based on an unpublished play by Wilde (who was still alive), I think that points to Mabel being the originator of the story. So the 1894 letter she quotes in 1921 is an invention of Mrs Chan-Toon; and if that's fake, the play is also likely to be an invention of hers as well.

  6. There was a child. Mary, between Chantoon and Agnes. And a whole family in the uk!



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