Betjeman biographer fooled by poet's hoax love letter

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The Independent Culture

When the author and critic A N Wilson launched his biography of John Betjeman on the centenary of the poet's birth he did so with great fanfare.

Declaring that he had been asked to write the book by Betjeman's daughter, he said that he had used only primary material, relying either on "the personal recollections of people who had known him" or letters and manuscripts.

One of the revelations of Wilson's book included the discovery of a passionate love letter that the poet laureate had apparently written to a mistress.

But that apparently astonishing discovery has now become a crushing embarrassment after an admission by the author that he had fallen victim to an elaborate "hoax".

The letter, it has emerged, was not written by Betjeman to his mistress after all, but by a trickster who successfully managed to convince Wilson that the letter was authentic.

Such was Wilson's conviction, that he has published it in his new book as an example of John Betjeman's previously undisclosed "flings".

While the letter may have appeared sincere, an obscene clue was encrypted in the letter to give the game away - the capital letters at the beginning of the sentences in the missive spelt out a personal insult to the biographer.

The romantic missive had supposedly been written by the poet in May 1944. By that time, Betjeman had already been married to Penelope Chetwode, for more than a decade. It was addressed to Honor Tracy, who Betjeman had worked with during the war.

It was found by Wilson about two years ago. In a covering note, someone signing herself "Eve de Harben" with an address in the Cote D'Azur wrote that she had received the letter from her father, who was a cousin of Tracy.

The supposed love note read: "Darling Honor, I loved yesterday. All day, I've thought of nothing else. No other love I've had means so much."

He then signed off by saying: "Tinkerty-tonk my darling. I pray I'll hear from you tomorrow. If I don't, I'll visit your office with a fake beard. All love, JB."

The capital letters at the beginning of each sentence spell the message: "A N Wilson is a shit".

On realising the deception, Wilson told The Sunday Times that he should, in fact, have been more sceptical, adding that when he returned the letter to de Harben, it came back to him with a note to say "Addressee and address not known".

He added: "I should have smelt a rat ... Obviously, the letter is a joke, a hoax."

Wilson's book sparked an intellectual spat with Bevis Hillier, the author of a three-volume biography of Betjeman, authorised by the poet himself in 1976, of which an abridged version has also appeared, to coincide with the centenary.

Hillier has denied that he had any involvement in the love letter "hoax".

To commemorate the life and work of John Betjeman, church bells will be rung today across the country. The poet laureate is buried in north Cornwall and this year is the centenary of his birth.

To mark the anniversary, the Betjeman Country Cornwall Group hopes to get all local churches to ring their bells at the same time, in honour of the famous poem, "Summoned By Bells".

John Betjeman died in May 1984 at his home in Trebetherick in Cornwall. He was buried in the nearby church of St Enodoc.