This week’s non-fiction class covered biography. The guest speaker was Bevis Hillier – the authorized biographer of the English poet John Betjeman. Hillier spent 28 years (28 years!) writing his three-volume biography – a true labour of love. Hillier is also an expert on art deco, writing the first book on the subject and effectively coining the phrase.
So far, so impressive.
But much more fascinating is the literary hoax Hillier perpetrated on his “great rival” A.N. Wilson. Rivals? Yeah, to the death. When Wilson gave Hillier’s Betjeman biography a poor review, Hillier retaliated with a negative review for two of Wilson’s books. After further skirmishes on the review pages, Wilson launched a bold offensive, announcing that he was writing his own biography of Betjeman.
As Hillier cheerfully outlined the details of the escalating feud to us, he remarked “I always hit back.” Well, talk about your sucker punch. Hillier invented a love letter purportedly written by the married Betjeman to a mistress. Hillier then wrote to Wilson, under the name “Eve de Harben” (an anagram of ever been had), enclosing a copy of the letter, along with a back story. Wilson accepted the letter as authentic and included it in his book. Once the book was published, Hillier wrote to the press, again under the name Eve de Harben. He revealed the hoax and landed this knock out punch: the first letter of each sentence in the fake letter – a copy of which was included in Wilson’s book – formed an acrostic: A N Wilson is a shit.
I guess if I spent 28 years beavering away on something I might get a bit tetchy about a bad review too…