Monday, September 04, 2006

Biographer's Betjemen Bombshell

Imagine this. You're writing a biography of a famous literary figure, and someone sends you a letter (written by that famous figure) which sheds light on a hitherto unknown love affair. Thrilled to bits with this new avenue of investigation, you include the letter in your book, speculate on the nature of the relationship (short, passionate) and send the manuscript off to print.

And only after the book is published does it become apparent that the letter is a complete hoax.

Even worse, the letter contains a coded message which turns out to be a joke at your expense. Worse still, the joke is an extremely rude insult aimed at you personally.

This is precisely what happened to biographer A.N.Wilson who recently published book about the life of former poet-laureate, John Betjemen. The leading suspect in the hoax was another Betjemen biographer, Bevis Hillier, with whom Wilson had been having an ongoing feud in print. (Hillier has since admitted the deception.)

The hidden message was discovered by the Sunday Times. The first letters of each sentence in the letter (except the first) spell out the insulting message:
The letter was sent to Wilson by a woman called Eve de Harben who said that it had been originally owned by an American collector. Eve de Harben is an anagram for:
Ever been had?
Literary London probably hasn't had such a good laugh in ages.

Read Sarah Lyall's account of the hoax in the New York Times, and fellow biographer Kathryn Jones' opinion piece in the Guardian.


Lydia Teh said...

That's a terrible thing to do. Pity Wilson but perhaps this spat will help push sales for both authors. Kathryn is right : biographers should stop bickering over their subjects as dead poets (or other artistes) can't be owned. That's why there are so many unofficial biographies of famous people. The more famous they are, the more biographies they'll inspire.

Anonymous said...

I know this is not relevant but I looooovvvvvvveee John Betjemen. He treated buildings/architecture like poems themselves and saved many from destruction. Jane Sunshine

bibliobibuli said...

lydia - terrible but very funny. i might have a go at it myself haha

jane - it is hard not to be extremely fond of betjemen

Anonymous said...

Er.. no it doesn't. There's something I'm missing.. I'm reading the letter, but the first letters are A.. N.. W.. and so on.. it doesn't make sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Oh< I get it now heh. :) Actually every sentence except the first and the last :)