The Hoax On You

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…

You can read the hoax letter here and more about the incident here and here.

14 thoughts on “The Hoax On You

  1. I have to admit, I’m torn between admiring Hillier’s wit and ingenuity and thinking the man needs psychological counseling. As you said, living with one subject for 28 years is a long time. He was probably off kilter to begin with.

    I wonder if this is it or whether Wilson will feel the urge to rebut.

  2. Holy cow!

    I admire the patience of Hillier’s revenge scheme (and will probably use it in something someday :) ), but the motivation seems a bit flimsy. I would have no idea how Wilson might rebut, but I hope it’s not lethal . . .

    • How’s this for motivation?
      (taken from

      “In 2004 Wilson – an unusually prolific author, who in the past few years has a produced a book a year – wrote a column in The Daily Telegraph ridiculing a Betjeman biographer who, he said, had been plaguing Wilson over a poor review. He did not name the person, but it was clear he was referring to Hillier, because there were no other Betjeman biographers on hand at the time.

      In an apparent reference to Hillier’s living in a converted almshouse, Wilson wrote, “How utterly pitiable to be some old bachelor in a Hiram’s Hospital, smock-clad like a pauper in the reign of Henry VIII, dripping resentment like the dottle from a smelly churchwarden’s pipe, and with so little in his life that he has to worry his sad old head about a book review.”

      I’m left wondering why A N Wilson was so ready to accept the letter – a copy, not an original – as accurate. He doesn’t seem to have done much to check the (non-existent) source.

  3. I kind of miss the old days when famous writers used to have public pissing matches. Remember Mailler vs. Vidal? Or I guess you could even say, Mailler vs. everyone else.

  4. Thanks for this, Downith. I love stories like this. Should I ever feel I need to get my revenge on anyone, I’ll remember this anecdote. Cold is best!

  5. What a story. Lord knows I’ve seen my share of wacky behaviour but this is really something to behold. I only wish I had enough time to plot such revenge. Wait a minute, I do, hmmm…

  6. holy moly

    could you imagine? harboring so much emotion (i was going to say hate, but it’s clear this is deeper than hate, right?) over so long of a period all at one person? you gotta spread that stuff out, get mad the post office employee, honk your horn at a elderly driver, roll your eyes at the PTA meeting or something. bundling all up for one person feels…paralyzing.

    of course, maybe he did this crap with everybody (that would be a great character), but the wilson stuff is all that got noticed since wilson was a public figure too.

  7. A real ‘Battle of The Books’ ( a popular radio show here.) I expect there is no one so vicious as writers when they start a fight. Good for sales too.

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