The True Story of the Fake Meeting Between Dickens and Dostoevsky

The True Story of the Fake Meeting Between Dickens and Dostoevsky

In 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky, then a writer of little renown traveling to Western Europe for the first time, dropped by Charles Dickens's offices in London and engaged the English novelist in an intimate chat. Dostoevsky had read and enjoyed some of the writer's works while in prison, Claire Tomalin explains in her 2011 biography of Dickens, and he reflected on this astounding episode 16 years later in a letter to a friend. "He told me that all the good people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been," Dostoevsky recalled, "and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort." More than 20 years before Robert Louis Stevenson first published Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, it seems, Dickens described to his Russian contemporary the dual nature of man that he sought to depict in his characters: "There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite." 

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It's a remarkable story, so it's no wonder that Michiko Kakutani chose to highlight it in her New York Times review of Tomalin's book.

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A remarkable story, except for the minor detail that it never took place. Nor, scholars believe, did the two literary figures ever meet at all.

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Eric Naiman, a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, was among the first to doubt the veracity of the anecdote. "I have been teaching courses on Dostoevsky for over two decades, but I had never come across any mention of this encounter," Naiman recalled, in an April essay for The Times Literary Supplement. The holes were glaring: What language did the two use to converse? Why would Dickens share such intimate perspective with Dostoevsky, whose works he had not likely read? Why was the story absent from Dostoevsky's published letters and previous biographies? (In addition to Tomalin's book, it had also popped up in Michael Slater's biography two years earlier. Dostoevsky's recollection of the encounter had supposedly been chronicled in Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi, a journal that turned out not to exist.)

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So Naiman traced the mythical meeting to a 2002 article in the Dickensian, "the organ of the Dickens Fellowship," by one Stephanie Harvey, who mentioned the story so matter-of-factly that all but the most skeptical of literary scholars would be (indeed, were) convinced. When the editor of the Dickensian wrote Harvey asking for further documentation, "she responded that she had lost her notes, had a poor memory, and had moved on to other topics"; when he wrote back, he received an email from Ms. Harvey's sister explaining that the scholar had suffered severe brain damage in a car crash and would not be able to reply. Weird, no? But Naiman, who chronicled his academic wild goose chase in astonishing detail, kept digging, locating some of Ms. Harvey's previous work and eventually uncovering a baffling web of seemingly fictitious academics—whose ranks, in addition to Stephanie Harvey, include Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay, and Ludovico Parra—who seemed to have spent upwards of three decades citing and praising and picking apart and criticizing each others' work despite possessing few biographic attributes and occasionally committing (self-)plagiarism with unscrupulous abandon. (In one instance, "Trevor McGovern" published a journal article that turned out to be an entire chapter from a 1978 text with only the first and last sentence altered.) 

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Yes, as you've by now probably surmised, Naiman traced each of these academic identities back to one very strange man. Meet Arnold—or AD Harvey, as he calls himself professionally—an obscure London writer and self-described "rejected scholar" who has spent decades wielding a grab bag of scholarly pen names, both to share his research and make mischief. All that, unfurled by a single, fabricated literary anecdote, tucked in the annals of a ten-year-old journal article.  

Anyway, Arnold, exactly three months after being outed, is now the subject of an utterly fascinating profile in The Guardian, an alternately sad and brutally funny portrait of an embittered academic who has channeled his professional failings into an intricate entanglement of academic pranks. Below are some highlights from the mind of AD Arnold, as told to The Guardian's Stephen Moss.

On his fictional "community of scholars":

"How comforting," Naiman commented drily, "to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticise each other's work."

On being a "rejected scholar":

"I'm not an independent scholar," he says, "I'm a scholar who couldn't get a job, a rejected scholar. I didn't choose to be independent. The fact that I was producing books and by 1979 had had half a dozen scholarly articles published, half of them in English literature, half of them in history, to anyone else that would look interesting, but to an academic it looks 'Why can't we do this? There's something wrong with this man.' What makes it look interesting to other people makes it look appalling to academics."

On his decision to begin inventing identities—and his belief in an academic conspiracy working against him:

"I think I was perfectly entitled to do this," he says. "If I was having work rejected because it had my name on it, I was entitled to send in a perfectly decent piece of work with another name."

On being "creative and inventive," not vengeful and bizarre:

"You have failed to detect two things about me," he says. "Yes, I have some of the instincts of the troublemaker. But the other thing is I am creative and inventive. You might have been like this if you hadn't gone into daily journalism. [I try not to take this personally.] It was a jeu d'esprit. Yes, I was misleading the editor of the Dickensian, but it's caveat emptor."

On America's role in the Dickens/Dostoevsky tale:

"What I hadn't bargained for," admits Harvey, "was how much interest there would be in the Dickens and Dostoevsky thing in America. It wouldn't have been noticed if it hadn't been for the Americans."

On what might have been, if only:

"How does the life we live relate to the lives we might have lived or ought to have lived?" he asks rhetorically. "If I'd had the life I ought to have lived, I would have had a junior research fellowship, a fellowship, marriage, marital breakdown, boredom, frustration, might have gone into politics, might have risen to minister of state, then more boredom and frustration. The pattern wouldn't have been that much different in my view."

Now that the gig is up, Harvey, who "has no computer at home, has to go to libraries to get online, writes everything longhand, and pays a typist to type it up," says he is slowing down. Alas. But his work—or mischief—leaves much to be discovered.

Read The Guardian's profile here. Read Eric Naiman's exhausting investigation here. Congratulate Professor Naiman on his admirable detective work here.