What the Dickens!
July 17, 2013 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Here is a follow up to a previous post: An interview with AD Harvey, the man behind the Dickens meets Dostoevsky hoax.

Interestingly, in the comments PGCrane points out another incidence of a false Dickens meeting (transcription, bold and links, mine):
See also the supposed occasion that the young Tolstoy heard Dickens read in London in 1861. A charming tale, repeated by many biographers, but almost certainly untrue, as I explained in a paper presented at a conference at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate, in 1998 [Relevant passage transcribed below]. (Published in the Tolstoy Studies Journal, 1998.) That's the trouble with stories that are too good to be true: they so often aren't.

The only reason I know anything at all about Tolstoy's visit to London is that he described it, first in 1890 and then in 1898, to my great-grandfather, Raphael Löwenfeld, who was his German translator and first biographer. Löwenfeld wrote an account of the second visit, in 24 typed pages, and, from Berlin, mailed it to Sofya Tolstoy, with a cover letter telling her that she should make whatever deletions she thought necessary. (The letter is quoted in an endnote to Cathy Porter's great edition of Sofya Tolstoy's letters, at p. 910.) The typescript, marked up by Sofya and to a lesser extent Tolstoy, went back into Löwenfeld's papers, and when my grandmother fled Berlin in 1936, it was among them, unrecognized for what it was. Finding it in my grandmother's desk drawer, I donated it, as well as an 1892 letter from Tolstoy to Löwenfeld that began, "Dear Brother," to the Tolstoy archives at Yasnaya Polyana in 1994.
Flash forward to 1920. Raphael Löwenfeld had been dead for 10 years, and his widow, Ida, was living at Egerstrasse 1 in Berlin's Grunewald section. She decided to sublet the apartment, and listed it with two agencies. Thinking that it would probably be weeks before anyone inquired about it, she did not at once notify her maid, Emilie. That afternoon, Emilie was startled to find two Russians at the door, asking about the apartment. Having no idea what they were talking about, she would not allow them through the door, taking them for sophisticated burglars. Finally, my great-grandmother, who was resting outside in a hammock, was summoned, and the circumstances were explained. ("There I was, standing like a dummy in front of the two foreign men," Emilie said later. It took a lot of explanation and apology on Ida's part to mollify her.)
One of the two men presented a carte de visite identifying himself as Vladimir Nabokov, former member of the Duma. One look at Raphael's Russian library was enough to make him decide to take the place. His family included several children: a daughter who played the piano, and two sons who spent most of their time in England, where they were studying. Nabokov Sr. greatly impressed my grandmother by his insistence on shining his own boots -- this in an era when this was regarded as servant's work. (See Krupskaya's memoirs, in which she describes the time that she and Lenin, living in Switzerland, were so hard up that they moved into lodgings where Lenin had to shine his own boots, and proved clumsy at it.)
The account of the 1898 visit also sheds light on, even if it cannot definitively resolve, a problem that has long vexed students of Tolstoy; how Tolstoy could have heard Charles Dickens lecturing on education during his 1861 visit to London, as is often reported, when Dickens'a only public appearance In that time was a reading of A Christmas Carol. Victor Lucas, in Tolstoy in London says of Tolstoy - inaccurately, as will be discussed shortly - that "all his biographers have stated" that he heard Dickens speak on education. Lucas goes on to surmise that Tolstoy may have been misquoted, or that Dickens may have made incidental references to education that so impressed Tolstoy thai they blotted out other memory of the evening when he described it decades later.
In his 1988 biography of Tolstoy, A. N. Wilson cites Lucas for the proposition that Tolstoy told "his first biographer Biryukov" that he "heard Dickens in a large public hall." Wilson theorizes that Biryukov, aware of Tolstoy's and Dickens's interest in education, "supplied the deadly untruth" (Wilson 161). Wilson thereby does an injustice both to Biryukov, as we shall see, and to Lucas, who attributed The Dickens story not to Biryuov but to Aylmer Maude (Lucas 35, 109).
The reality may be simpler than what Lucas and Wilson theorize. I would suggest that Tolstoy probably never saw or heard Dickens at all. In the 1892 biography, Löwenfeld reports that during his stay in London Tolstoy visited Parliament and was "lucky enough to hear Lord Palmerston deliver a three-hour speech" (141). Nothing is said about Dickens. In the 1898 typescript, Tolstoy is quoted as saying that during his trip to London — a trip cut short because of a bad toothache — introductions from the Comte de Surcour in Paris got him entry to such clubs as the Pali Mall Club, "where Thackeray from time to time also was a guest" (20). Again, there is no mention of Dickens. To me, it seems improbable That Tolstoy would recall and mention to Löwenfeld so trifling a connection to Thackeray, while neglecting to mention having heard Dickens if he had in fact done so. Dickens was far too important to him to have slipped his mind; we know from Tolstoy's 1891 letter to Mr M. Lederle, for example, that David Copperfield was one of the books that he described as having had an "enormous" influence on him (Christian 485), We also know from Löwenfeld's biography and from Biryukov, who relied on it, with what apparent pleasure Tolstoy recalled other people who impressed him on his European travels: Proudhon, Lelevel, Auerbach, and others. In addition, K. N. Lomunov has collected more than 20 other instances in which Tolstoy wrote or commented to others about Dickens; in none of them does Tolstoy say anything about having heard Dickens in London (Jones 43). It seems significant, moreover, that the story of Tolstoy's having heard Dickens makes no appearance in several other biographies which appeared in Tolstoy's lifetime: Biryukov's Leo Tolstoy, His Life and Work: Childhood and Early Manhood, published in English translation in 1906; Edward Steiner's Tolstoy the Man (1904); or Maude's two-volume biography of Tolstoy, first published in 1908. Rather, The story seems to have originated with Makovitsky, whose memoirs, not published until 13 years after Tolstoy's death (and two years after Makovitsky's suicide), were later cited by Gusev. In sum, I would suggest that if Tolstoy had in fact heard Dickens in 1861, it is likely that not only Löwenfeld, but many others as well, would have been told about it, and it would not have taken six decades for an account of the event to appear in print.
posted by unliteral (5 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps they met as ghosts.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:23 PM on July 17, 2013

So he's a never-was.
He appeared to be on the fast track to academic stardom, but reckons these early triumphs sowed the seeds of his downfall. "Naturally enough, I thought the sooner I finished the PhD, the sooner I'd get an academic job," he says, "but the opposite is the case." He says the ease with which he had gained his doctorate was held against him, and that the universities to which he was applying in his 20s were suspicious that he was already published.

There may be a degree of paranoia in all this. It could be that Harvey was just unlucky. Also, he started writing to the Times Higher Education Supplement complaining about being frozen out, so was starting to be seen as a troublemaker.
So...the system worked? Judging from his subsequent decisions, it doesn't seem he would be a desirable person to have in academia.
posted by cribcage at 8:41 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's another mystery, then. Google "Chesterton" and "Gabonese," and you will discover that G. K. Chesterton was an "English born Gabonese Critic, Essayist, Novelist and Poet, 1874-1936."

Now, Gabon did not win its independence until 1960, and Chesterton was born in London. The word "Gabon" never appears in his works, and, as far as I can tell, he never traveled to (or from) Africa.

Why is his purported African nationality so widespread?
posted by Nomyte at 9:16 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

This entire story is absolutely amazing. Best thing the TLS has published for years and years.

I've seen that man wandering around the BL at least once a day for the last, what?, fifteen years or so. He's a very, erm, distinctive presence.

I imagine many regular BL readers and staff would have seen that article in The Guardian and gone "oh him, oh that makes complete sense".
posted by bebrogued at 6:26 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wonder how many well known stories of famous figures, retold in reputable biographies, are in fact total poppycock. I reckon there are at least fifty-eight.
posted by Kattullus at 11:38 AM on July 18, 2013

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