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When Dickens Met Dostoevsky: A Very Literary Hoax

15/04/2013 19:36 BST | Updated 14/06/2013 10:12 BST

There is a long and colourful history of literary hoaxes, from the fourth-century Latin document that allegedly ceded rights of the Roman Emperor to Pope Sylvester I to the infamous Alan Sokal Affair, in which a New York physics professor published an essay in Social Text, which "proved" that quantum gravity was nothing but a social construct.

In some quarters of the literary establishment, the debate still rages about who really "wrote" Shakespeare's plays. And then there was the Doris Lessing "double hoax", in which the distinguished Nobel Prize Winner wrote a couple of novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers, in order to see whether her writing would prosper without the name behind it. "I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that nothing succeeds like success," commented the author. Lessing was duly vindicated when her British publisher rejected the "Somers" manuscript.

Hoaxes can be used to subvert the establishment, bolster and tarnish reputations, and simply cause trouble. One recent story does it all. It began when an account surfaced of Fyodor Dostoevsky dropping in on Charles Dickens during a brief visit to London in 1862. The pair had an apparently productive meeting, with the Russian author later writing about their conversation in a letter. Dostoevsky is known to have visited London in 1862, and this "meeting" made its way into two Dickens biographies, including Claire Tomalin's recent magisterial study to mark the author's bicentenary. Tomalin even went so far as to characterize a phrase attributed to Dickens by Dostoevsky in the letter as "Dickens's most profound statement about his inner life".

But some Dickens scholars weren't so sure. This momentous meeting of literary giants wasn't common knowledge. It had apparently disappeared from the public record, only to surface over a century later. Smelling a rat, the scholar Eric Naiman went on the trail. What emerged was a string of apparent hoaxes and fabulations stretching back over three decades and leading to a single mischievous source. The results of his investigations are described in an extraordinary article in this week's Times Literary Supplement. It will take an hour to read, but it's well worth the trouble. It's a story not just of academic deception but of modern literary life.