It may sound contradictory but readers demand two things from their reading material: to be taken away from their harsh realities and to be exposed to things that seem realistic and identifiable to them. Whether it is an autobiographical novel, historical fiction or roman á clef writers like to go for fact-based plots. But does an author have the right to hoax the public into believing that fictional accounts actually happened? Or to exaggerate literary license to smear public figures and distort reality?
Writers are advised to stick to what they know, to write about their environment and to base their characters on real people. But what are the limits when it comes to dealing with historical facts or depicting well-known public figures and notorious crimes? The reader may have a field day trying to guess who is who in a roman à clef (literally “a novel with clues”) but the writer could be asking for a law suit.
Part of historical fiction’s charm is that its characters actually existed and went through the joys and ordeals portrayed in the novel. When Robert Graves tackled the subject of Imperial Rome in I Claudius, he adhered to the truth by following the lead of classical historians like Tacitus and Suetonius. Precisely what the producers of HBO’s “Rome” chose not to do, so they could have a free hand reinventing Roman history. Lucky for them no emperor was around to sue them.
On a smaller scale, Philippa Gregory does the same in her so-called historical novels, yet the licenses she takes in The Other Boleyn Girl makes it more fictional than factual as any historians could easily prove. The peak of historical distortion appears in works like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter in which the future president´s mother is slain by a blood-sucking creature aided by plantation owners. So what is Honest Abe to do but chase after vampires, becoming an abolitionist in the process? Should the real Lincoln, a revered historical figure, be subject to such disrespect?
The autobiographical novel is another misleading genre. Unlike a memoir, autobiographical fiction will only touch the most transcendental aspects of the protagonist´s life, will still have a central conflict that must be solved at the end, and does not have to be entirely based on fact. Louisa May Alcott modeled The March Family after her own family but in real life she never married a German school teacher. Ernest Hemingway was in the Italian Army during the Great War and had an affair with a nurse, but he didn´t get her pregnant and run off with her to Switzerland as his alter ego Fredrik Henry does in A Farewell to Arms.
When Nancy Mitford published The Pursuit of Love in 1945, her sister phoned her and said: “You have no imagination so you must be having an affair with a Frenchman.” Indeed, Nancy was having a romance that would last until her death with Colonel Gaston Palewski, De Gaulle´s aid in London. She also turned Palewski into a literary character in her novels, the grand Fabrice de Sauveterre. Nancy Mitford’s books were loved in England, since most of her characters were inspired by real members of the British high society, including her own relatives who are the models for the delightfully dysfunctional Radletts. But in real-life, the Mitford were darker and more dysfunctional than the author would tell us.
|Gaston Palewski, or "The Colonel" as Nancy Mitford called him.|
The roman à clef (was invented by Mademoiselle de Scudery, one of the earliest novelists in history and was part of social circle centered at La Marquise de Rambouillet´s salon. The people that gathered at the Hotel de Rambouillet included writers, philosophers and even royalty. De Scudery wanted to write about their affairs, but in the days of the Sun King, offending royalty or aristocracy meant a ticket to La Bastille. Therefore, in her novels, Mademoiselle turned important acquaintances into characters of Greek mythology.
|Madeleine de Scudery|
That was the birth of he Roman à clef, a novel that deals with real events but changes characters’ names in order to protect the innocent, the guilty and, foremost, the writer. After all William Randolph Hearts did threaten Orson Welles with a libel suit after recognizing himself in “Citizen Kane”, Welles opus magna and film à clef. When Lauren Weisberger published The Devil Wears Prada, everybody assumed it was an autobiographical account of her days in Vogue, and the heroine´s ruthless boss Miranda Priestly was obviously based on Anna Wintour, Vogue´s editor-in-chief.
Despite the author´s denials, everybody in the designing world (and the media) rallied in defense of the real “dragon lady.” The novel got mean critics from the Times Book Review that bordered in ad hominem reproaches targeting the author; Conde Nast publications did not bother to review the book, and designers refused to appear in the film afraid it would upset Wintour (who did show up at the premiere …wearing Prada!) Writing about real people is a dangerous affair.
Another hook for reality lovers is a story “straight from the headlines,” one that is based on a recent scandal or crime. In 1827, Antoine Berthet shot Madame Michoud, his former employee, at a Grenoble church. Bethet blamed Madame Michoud, who had been his mistress, for interfering with his romance with Mademoiselle de Cordon, daughter of his new employer. Berthet was convicted of murder and guillotined. Stendhal would take this red chronicle tidbit and turned it into his masterpiece Le Rouge et le Noir.
|Ewan McGregor an Rachel Weisz in the TV adaptation of Le Rouge et Le Noir.|
Crime stories are excellent basis for stories to please a public hungry for sensationalism. Patrick Hamilton based his play “Rope” on the Leopold-Loeb murders; Norman Mailer used Gary Gilmore’s execution for his The Executioners’ Song and the homicide of Jonny Stompanato, perpetrated by Lana Turner´s daughter motivated Harold Robbins to write Where Love Has Gone.
Before my bodice-ripper years, I was hooked on Harold Robbins’ romans a clef. Next to Jacqueline Susann, he was the most prolific chronicler of scandals involving global jet set members and Hollywood stars. It was incredible fun to guess who was behind his characters. Soon I knew that Nora in Where Love Has Gone was Lana Turner; Jonas Cord in The Carpetbaggers was Howard Hughes, Dax in The Adventurers was inspired by Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa and The Lonely Lady was a thinly disguised portrait of Jacqueline Susann.
|Lana Turner, her daughter Cheryl, and Stompanato|
Prior to Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann was the expert in the business of Hollywood romans a clef. So good was she at turning movie stars into fictional characters that sometimes not only the readers were confused. In Once is not Enough, Susann tells the tragic story behind a reclusive Hollywood diva named Karla. After her retirement, the Polish actress just “vants to be alone”, but several lovers of either sex are bent in discovering her secrets. One of those secrets is the mentally-challenged daughter she keeps hidden in London.
A couple for years after the novel hit the bestseller’s list, a Swedish magazine leaked the news that they had discovered that Greta Garbo had a hidden daughter named Liv Gustaffson. The rumor soon died out because, aside from wishful thinking, there were no facts supporting their claim. Greta Garbo, unlike her fictional clone, never had a child, and the disturbed daughter was a reflection of Susann’s own autistic son that she always kept away from the public eye.
Sometimes authors purposely play with their readers. In 1967, Lady Joan Lindsay published Picnic at Hanging Rock the enigmatic story of the vanishing of three schoolgirls in the Australian Outback. Following her publisher´s advice, and to boost the suspense, Lindsay hacked off the last chapter where the mystery was explained.
The novel became an instant hit in Australia and abroad, originating a fandom that despaired over finding solutions to the great enigma of what really happened at that St. Valentine picnic. Readers believed the novel was based on actual facts. After Lady Joan´s passing the end chapter was published, but people preferred to continue on conjecturing and I have read books (and Internet sites) on UFO’s abductions where the events at Hanging Rock are described as factual.
Humans love to find supernatural solutions to the unexplained. Even in this skeptical age there is nothing as titillating as the idea of real mysteries dressed as fiction. The most terrifying aspect behind “The Blair Witch Project” was its reality show aura, the concept that it was a real project about a real dangerous sorceress. Dan Brown’s novels might, according to its followers, debunked “ancient myths”, but he has also created new legends. I know many Dan Brown fans who truly believe in the existence of The Illuminati and The Priory of Zion or that Jesus fathered a daughter named Sara.
How legitimate is to present fiction as facts? Is there a limit for literary or historical licenses when it comes to real people? How autobiographical are your novels? Do you include real characters and historical events in your books? How do you deal with them?