On fictionalising real-life people

It's taken almost a year, but finally (small hooray!) it looks as though I have a publisher for my historical novel (more of this will be in another blog when everything is finalised). Given that it's a novel based on real-life individuals, I thought it would be worthwhile asking other novelists who have also written fiction about people who actually lived (and who may be very famous, have lots of biographical information already written about them, have diaries and letters already published). I'm delighted to say that Lynn Shepherd, whose latest novel, A Treacherous Likeness is published by Corsair, will be kicking off this series next Friday on the 15th February.

To introduce it a little earlier, though, I thought I'd write a piece about the dangers and pleasures of writing about real people, especially given Hilary Mantel's extraordinary feat this year of winning just about everything going with her second novel about the real-life figure of Thomas Cromwell. When it comes to historical fiction, it might seem almost mandatory at the moment to portray someone who really lived, although there are plenty of historical novelists still writing about entirely invented characters. Why is it such a popular thing to do in fiction right now?

It isn't confined to literature alone, of course - this year's main Oscar contender is the film, Lincoln (already getting criticism for skating over Lincoln's early attitudes to slavery), and TV's hugely successful series Boardwalk Empire is populated by real-life historical figures - I found an amusing piece on the net arguing that 'Al Capone didn't look like that', anchoring our belief that in fictionalising real-life people we should be as true to the facts as possible.

Perhaps it's because of that necessary play with the facts that many writers actively dislike those who 'appropriate' real-life people for their stories - in 2009, Antonia Byatt came down hard on those who steal others' lives for their fiction: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/13/byatt-novelists-real-life-characters. Describing the process as a mix of "biography and fiction, journalism and invention", she almost saw these portraits as "a kind of attack" on them. As the interviewer points out, this was the year Hilary Mantel won the Booker for Wolf Hall, the first in the trilogy imagining Cromwell's life and times. But it's not just historical novelists who use real-life figures - thriller writers have been doing this for ever, as this recent review points out: http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/thriller-with-cast-of-reallife-characters-3367711.html. And literary novelists have been basing characters on the less famous but much closer to home for ever, too: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Ten-Famed-Literary-Figures-Based-On-Real-Life-People-169666976.html?c=y&page=2. The recent recovery of Richard III's skeleton from under a car park has had many defending Shakespeare's representation of him as an evil, deformed, ugly monster in his history plays, as though he was honour-bound to depict him as realistically as he could.

So there's no denying that 'borrowing' a real-life figure from history is currently enjoying a 'moment'. Perhaps it's part of our fascination with celebrity, and reality tv, that shows no sign of dying out - we want to get inside the heads of those rich, famous, and seemingly unapproachable, individuals. The acquisition of power and the tragedy of a great fall - not only does this kind of narrative satisfy the curious, it's a narrative that deals with big themes. But the question of loyalty to the truth is more complex.

My novel is based on a real-life person, Isabella Baxter Booth, who lived in Broughty Ferry. She became good friends with Mary Shelley in her adolescence, when Mary's father sent her to spend two summers with the Baxter family (her experiences in the north are mentioned in her foreword to Frankenstein). I knew that Isabella had married her dead sister's husband, and that that husband suffered bouts of madness, compelling her to contemplate leaving him. Mary and her husband Shelley offered to take Isabella and her young daughters with them to Europe - Isabella said yes, then changed her mind.

A few years later, Mary returned from Italy a widow and went to meet Isabella, who was then living in London. It was 1823, and she described the meeting in a letter to a friend, where she rather alarmingly expressed the opinion that Isabella was "much disturbed in her reason". This was the starting point for my novel - what had happened to Isabella in the intervening years? Did she often regret her decision not to leave her husband when the chance was offered?

As I began to research the period and look into the kind of madness her husband suffered from, I became more and more fascinated with the history of psychiatry, which was just in its infancy. So this is where the fiction departs from the facts - I know that Isabella left for Scotland shortly after Mary's visit. But what happened on that trip? Why did she head north? Was she thinking about leaving her husband again? Just how "disturbed in her reason" was she? I love asking these questions, as much as I love the research I did about psychiatry. The 'real-life' individual is prompting these questions - the facts are pushing me ever further.

There's little more factual information to go on after this point in her life, though, and except many years later just before Mary Shelley dies, and a tribute to her written by her grandson, with some fond memories of her. Which is also a great boon for a novelist as it leaves you with plenty of scope to imagine. But am I making some kind of "attack" on a real-person's memory by "appropriating" her story, as Byatt suggests? Novelists have to be ruthless - the plot demands certain things, other characters demand certain things, and the point we're maybe trying to make demands certain things, too. Perhaps Isabella would be horrified with what I've done with her life; perhaps she'd be delighted by it. But I can only stay as "psychologically true" to the character of Isabella that I've created in my head, as much as possible. And let the facts lead me where they will...




  1. I'm just about to publish a historical novel, The Physic Garden, based on a couple of real people - William Lang, who was a gardener at the Old College of Glasgow University, and Thomas Brown who lectured in Botany in the very early 1800s. So I find this a very interesting post. (And look forward to your novel!) I like to think the historical background is authentic - I've written enough about this period in plays and non fiction to feel very comfortable with it - but I too have had several discussions with professional colleagues about this very topic. I even considered fictionalising both characters completely. But in the end, I've decided I can't do that - my narrator is too real and too strong and although I've 'made up' a lot of his story it just feels right, somehow. But I've added a small disclaimer at the end, pointing out what is fiction and what is fact!

  2. It is a real conundrum, where to draw the line,isn't it? I'm reading Joyce Carol Oates's The accursed right now, which is a novel narrated by a historian, purporting to be in charge of historical facts yet making it up etc etc, into an endless cycle of 'faction' with real people and invented ones.

  3. I'm currently reading Barbara Vine's The Blood Doctor. (Beautifully researched and written - a disturbing book) The main characters are of course 'made up' but the contemporary sections refer to many real people and the historical background is not just immaculate but so interesting! I think, analysing my behaviour as a reader, that I just get into the mindset of 'fiction' and don't even worry what's real and what's not. But I don't know if everyone does that or if people find themselves stopping and looking things up. I hope not!


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