Beginning with what he finds to be a rather implausible account of a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky, Eric Naiman’s recent essay for the Times Literary Supplement spins out an astonishing story of suspect scholarship. I very much recommend reading it if you haven’t already.
At the centre of the mystery is an independent historian named A.D. Harvey, and a bewildering variety of other names from letters pages and scholarly journals – Stephanie Harvey, John Schellenberger, Trevor McGovern, Leo Bellingham – that may or may not belong to him. The piece raises all sorts of questions. If you work for a magazine, however, it raises one question with particular urgency: did any of these people write to us?
Well, we’ve looked – or rather the indefatigable Jonathan Jones has – and the only one of Naiman’s names that crops up in our archives is that of Harvey himself. He wrote an enjoyable short piece in 2003 on damage to Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’, without any concealed revelations that I can see, and has contributed choice scraps from the Public Record Office to Allan Massie’s ‘Life and Letters’ column in much the same way as Naiman describes him doing to the Litt Supp‘s ‘NB’.
His most interesting appearance, though, may be his first: a letter from an A.D. Harvey of St John’s college, Oxford, in July 1967 that adds something to Naiman’s portrait of a clever but perhaps somewhat bitter outsider:
“Sir: Not having been privileged to go to a public school, I am not qualified to criticise Mr Simon Raven’s amusing article. However, apart from pointing out that most grammar schools finish before four o’clock (confer ‘six o’clock as the grammar school boy starts his journey home’), I do feel that somebody ought to remind Mr Simon Raven that grammar school boys are alive, too. The opportunities for megalomania are perhaps not-as good, but they exist nevertheless. A grammar school boy may not see his rival working out his emotional conflicts in bed, but there is still plenty of personal animosity and rivalry in his life.
“Of course, the public school boy might see more of these elevating emotional contortions than a grammar school boy, but on the other hand a grammar school boy has more opportunities of another kind. He is free to cultivate the company of girls and to meet his friends away from the oppressive atmosphere of school. Many public school boys suffer from this lack of freedom, as can be seen from the way they behave when they come up to university.
“If public schools deserve any part of their prominence in British society, it can be due only to the fact that most public school boys come from the sort of background which gives children the right atmosphere to develop their talents and which, because of the hereditary nature of intelligence, has the greatest chance of producing talented children. The fact that these children, once produced, are sent to public schools, can hardly make any difference — as perhaps the abolition of public schools will one day prove.”
I particularly like ‘opportunities for megalomania’.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.