Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2006 Issue

A Great Literary Hoax from England!

Bwilson

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.

Rare Book Monthly

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    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> CURRIER and IVES, publishers -- After Frances F. Palmer. The Rocky Mountains. Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1866. $10,000 to $15,000.
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    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822). Autograph letter signed ("P. B. S."), to Charles Ollier. Florence, Italy, 15 December 1819. “MY PROMETHEUS IS THE BEST THING I EVER WROTE.” $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> RAMSAY, David (1749-1815). <i>The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina…</i> Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [BINDINGS]. MUIR, John (1838-1914). <i>The Writings of John Muir.</i> Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916-1924. 10 vols. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>May 12, 2021</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [CHICAGO] -- <i>Park & Guide Map of Chicago.</i> Chicago: Jas. Van Vechten, 1873. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> CURRIER and IVES, publishers -- After Frances F. Palmer. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [ALLEN PRESS]. SHAKESPEARE, William (1564-1616). <i>Romeo and Juliet.</i> Greenbrae: Allen Press, 1988. $1,000 to $1,500.
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    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> BEMELMANS, Ludwig (1898-1962). Pencil drawing on paper. 247 x 198 mm, sight, matted and framed. Showing a child shooting at a baby's balloon. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> [LOGAN ELM PRESS]. HARVEY, Rebecca. <i>Any Number of Things.</i> Ohio State University, 2013. Single sheet paper scroll. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, May 12:</b> BINYON, Laurence (1869-1943). A small archive of letters and pamphlets. $200 to $300.
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    <b>Sotheby’s May 11:</b> Dumas, Alexandre. <i>Les Trois mousquetaires.</i> 1844. 8 vols. In 4. Paris, Baudry, 1844. €30,000 to €50,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Proef van Letteren, <i>Welk gegooten worden in de Nieuwe Haerlemsche Lettergietery,</i> 1768. $3,000 to $4,000.
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