A Great Literary Hoax from England!
Bevis Hillier's biography of Betjeman.
By Michael Stillman
We don't make a habit of writing about British literary intrigues, but once in awhile we have to make exceptions. This one made headlines in the land of Shakespeare, but perhaps most people on the western side of the Atlantic missed it. This is the story of a most savage, yet hilarious hoax played by one British literary critic upon another. Never say the English lack a sense of humor.
The subject was Sir John Betjeman, a British poet, architectural writer, and even broadcaster. Betjeman played no personal role in the hoax, he having died in 1984, but Betjeman was said to have a great sense of humor, so he probably would have enjoyed this story. Well, at least he probably would have enjoyed the story were he not its unwilling subject.
This is really the story of two critics and writers, biographers of Betjeman, and bitter rivals. One is A.N. Wilson, perhaps the better known, a prolific writer, and, evidently, a biting wit. Wilson has not exactly been above using personal insults in his criticism, and one of his victims is rival writer and Betjeman biographer Bevis Hillier. Perhaps, in a simile Americans will better understand, Wilson played the role of Butthead to Bevis Hillier.
Apparently the dagger that set off this hoax was comments Wilson made about the second of three volumes of Hillier's biography of Betjeman released in 2002. Wilson called it a "hopeless mishmash." In England, those are fighting words. Actually, Wilson has also said some even more unkind words about Hillier along the way, and the fact that Wilson, a competitor, was writing such a critical review of his work, must have struck Bevis as a pretty buttheaded thing for his rival to do. Considering that Wilson was in the process of writing his own biography of Betjeman, one can see the potential for a conflict of interest here.
So one day this letter shows up in Wilson's mailbox. It was sent by one Eve de Harben in France. Her father supposedly had once possessed a letter written by Betjeman to Honor Tracy, the father's cousin. Tracy was a long time friend of Betjeman, but the letter revealed she had been more than just a friend. Betjeman's letter gushes with love and sexual references. Betjeman was not exactly a prude, but this letter shined a bit more light on his sexual proclivities. Without doing much checking on the authenticity of the letter, Wilson published it in his Betjeman biography as an example of the poet's personal predilections.
A Great Literary Hoax from England!
A.N. Wilson's rival biography of Betjeman.
This proved to be a great hoax. In fact, it was so good no one even noticed. Either Betjeman's followers are not very questioning, or perhaps there just aren't that many people reading his biographies. Betjeman is not exactly a household name, at least not in the former colonies. The hoaxter, of course Hillier, was forced to send a letter to the London Sunday Times, again supposedly from "de Harben," explaining that the first letter was a hoax. This follow-up claimed that de Harben created the hoax to get back at Wilson for uncomplimentary comments he made about another critic, Humphrey Carpenter. However, Carpenter's widow said she had never heard of de Harben. The whole ruse was about to collapse.
It turns out, the letter contained clues that it was a hoax all along. The name "Eve de Harben" is an anagram for "Ever been had?" Better yet, the first letter of each sentence in the letter, starting with the second, spells out, "A.N. Wilson is a sh*t." Hillier at first denied any involvement in the ruse, though he was the obvious suspect. Whoever wrote it must have been an expert about the personal life of Betjeman and someone who hated Wilson. That universe probably contains about one person. Among the unintended clues was the fact that the original letter from "France" was postmarked London. Markings on the envelope indicated it had been purchased in Hillier's hometown. It didn't take long before Hillier was forced to come clean and admit he was the perpetrator.
As for Wilson, he admitted he should have investigated a bit more. He said he was surprised that when he responded to de Harben's letter, it came back "addressee unknown." Between that and the London postmark, you might think he would have investigated more deeply, but sometimes it's hard not to believe what you want to believe. Wilson had a scoop over his rival, and he wanted to believe it so much that he allowed Hillier to make a fool of him. Not that Hillier comes out of this looking like the great scholar, but he does come out as one very clever prankster.
But, how would poor Betjeman feel about all of this? For obvious reasons, we will never know. However, it has been reported that in the final year of his life, Betjeman was quoted as saying his biggest regret was that he did not engage in more sex. If this is true, then perhaps he would be upset not that false claims about him were made, but that those claims were, sadly, false.