The days of Ossian are not dead

Posted by Helen Tuesday, July 16, 2013 , , ,

Last autumn I attended a conference (as I do from time to time) on Dickens and Russia, parts of which were fascinating. Others, mostly profound academic analyses of Dostoyevsky's debt to Dickens considerably less so.

However, one astonishing account to emerge was the story of Dickens's supposed meeting with Dostoyevsky in 1862, first written about by Stephanie Harvey in the The Dickensian in 2002. The story was picked up by the two most recent biographers of Dickens, Michael Slater in 2009 and Claire Tomalin in 2011. However, when American reviews of the biographies started appearing and the meeting between two giants of nineteenth century literature was mentioned, the Dostoyevsky scholars bestirred themselves, asking the obvious question as to why nobody had ever heard of such a momentous event. They also asked what language the two spoke to each other and what on earth was the supposed Kazakh academic journal whence Stephanie Harvey culled her information. At least two of those questions should have been asked by the Dickens biographers but was not.

Anyway, the story became quite farcical with Stephanie Harvey's sister writing a letter to the editor of The Dickensian to tell him that the lady had suffered a near-fatal car crash and could no longer communicate with anyone and lots of egg on everybody's face.

Last week the Guardian published an interview with the perpetrator of the hoax, one A. D. Harvey, whom I actually know or knew in his short stint as the editor of the Salisbury Review. He would hover round the place and propound all sorts of historical facts that he had gleaned in various libraries and archives. I am ashamed to say that I did not appreciate his writings as they tended to be of the "look what I found in this archive" variety with no particular conclusions or analyses.

It now transpires that in all that time Arnold Harvey was engaged in the creation of a number of mythical personalities: writers, poets, historians who would produce articles promoting and and praising each other's work. The Dickens-Dostoyevsky meeting can be described as the most successful of these hoaxes and as Mr Harvey says, if it had not been for American Dostoyevsky students, he would have got away with it. In fact, for many years he did.

Here is the whole story of the uncovering of Arnold Harvey, the latter day James Macpherson who merely "translated" Ossian in some detail in the venerable pages of the TLS. I am afraid I found the story too exquisitely funny to be able to sympathize with Professor Naiman's apparent distaste for A. D. Harvey's behaviour or to accept his pity for the man. In my view Arnold Harvey definitely has the last laugh on all those editors and scholars who blithely published and quoted his spurious writers and historians. Who can be so heartless as not to laugh at the sight of egg on the face of pompous Dickens biographers?


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