Putting real people into novels

“Most of the great English novels of the 20th century come crammed with supercharged versions of real people,” claims D.J. Taylor in The Guardian. Prompted by the appearance of a thinly veiled caricature of V.S. Naipaul in Hanif Kureishi’s new novel, The Last Word, Taylor points to a rich heritage of real-life characters walking straight into novels – and not always for the best reasons.

– Charles Dickens’ included a real-life hairdresser in David Copperfield. When she realised, Mrs Mowcher wrote a stern letter of complaint, moving Dickens to add an extra scene in which she becomes a last-minute heroine.

– Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim included a devastatingly unflattering portrait of the author’s detested father-in-law.

– Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies was choc-a-bloc with the “Bright Young People” of aristocratic 1920s Mayfair, whose decadent antics were quite outrageous enough already.

– Somerset Maugham’s rendition of the novelist Hugh Walpole in Cakes and Ale as a “scheming literary careerist” caused irreparable damage to the latter’s public image.

– Disraeli “worked off years of accumulated spite” by featuring the novelist Thackeray as an unlikeable literary critic in Endymion.

Taylor himself admits to the same practice, although he “only once pitchforked a person I knew directly into a novel to make a point”.

D.J. Taylor’s article appeared in the Guardian on February 7th.

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