The ways in which novelists make use of reality in fiction has long been the subject of debate, and some writers have reacted strongly against the notion that “real people” can be represented in a fictional story.
“All novelists who describe (whether from without or within) what is called ‘society life’ are pursued by the idiotic accusation of putting ‘real people’ (that is, persons actually known to the author) into their books,” Edith Wharton wrote in 1933. “‘Real people’ transported into a work of the imagination would instantly cease to be real; only those born of the creator’s brain can give the least illusion of reality.”
And yet, in literary history, there is an undeniable thread of novels that make substantial use of real people and situations, often through a veil of changed names. Here’s a look at six books in which authors controversially fictionalized events from real life.
Lady Caroline Lamb, a prolific writer, has been commonly associated with another writer with whom she had a relationship: the poet Lord Byron. These two strands of her life converged when she published the novel Glenarvon in 1816. Byron, whose literary avatar was the titular Glenarvon, called the novel—a fictionalized account of Byron’s life and Lamb’s affair with him—“a f*** and publish.”
Beyond Byron, the novel was full of obvious references to others in Lamb’s social circle and a number of notable figures in British society at the time. They included Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Lady Holland (Glenarvon’s Princess of Madagascar) as well as Holland’s son—and Lamb’s former lover—Godfrey Vassall Webster (as William Buchanan). Holland quickly identified herself and her son in the book and was furious, noting, “every ridicule, folly, and infirmity (my not being able from malady to move about much) is portrayed.”
Like Lady Holland, Lamb’s other targets reacted badly to their portrayals, and her reputation suffered as a result. But Lamb’s lampooning of real people wasn’t the only scandal surrounding Glenarvon: As noted in the introduction to Glenarvon in The Works of Lady Caroline Lamb Vol. 1, “Lamb set her novel in Ireland during the uprising for Catholic emancipation of 1798, which was brutally repressed. … [The novel] endorsed the political aspirations and military struggles of Irish Catholics, painting Glenarvon, its eponymous Byronic hero, as a traitor of their cause.”
Following the storm of controversy, Lamb revised the novel for its second edition and modified some elements: While she kept the portrayal of her stand-in for Byron the same, she altered minor characters in the story and changed some of what others viewed as immoral, including replacing the word god with heaven and toning down the sexual nature of the main characters’ relationship.
Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel, 1926’s The Sun Also Rises, made his name as a writer. It has also been described as “literature’s greatest roman à clef” because Hemingway took inspiration from his experiences with a number of friends while living in Europe in the 1920s. From all-night drinking sessions to getting into the ring at bullfights in Spain, their numerous adventures were translated from reality to fiction—and that wasn’t all.
Not only did the author put himself in the story—the book’s narrator, Jake Barnes, was called “Hem” in drafts—but many in his social circle at the time also appeared in the novel, and though they went by different names, they were barely disguised. Among the many true events fictionalized in The Sun Also Rises was the affair between Harold Loeb (as Robert Cohn) and Lady Duff Twysden (as Lady Brett Ashley), a fact that horrified Twysden. She later described Hemingway as “cruel” for writing the book.
Hemingway made his intentions clear one night after the group had returned from Spain: “I’m writing a book,” he told his friend Kitty Cannell (who would also appear in the novel). “Everybody’s in it.” Loeb, he revealed, was intended to be the villain. According to Lesley M.M. Blume—author of Everybody Behaves Badly, about the writing of The Sun Also Rises—“The portraits would haunt Lady Duff and the others for the rest of their lives.”
One of the best known political allegories, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) recounts the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin in the form of “a fairy story” (the book’s subtitle): The book’s animals, humans, and places are all designed to represent notable figures from that period of history. Manor Farm—which becomes “Animal Farm” following the animals’ uprising—is a stand-in for Russia; the changing of its name acts as a parallel to Russia’s name changes post-revolution. Historical figures were also fictionalized: Jones the farmer was Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia; Napoleon the pig was Joseph Stalin; and another pig named Snowball was a stand-in for Leon Trotsky.
The book’s writing and publication was controversial because some in Britain didn’t agree with giving a platform to criticism of Stalin and the Soviet regime—at the time Orwell was circulating the manuscript, they were allies in the war against Nazi Germany. The book was turned down by four publishers (including T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber) before finally being accepted by Secker & Warburg. The book was a success, though it was banned in a number of countries, including the then-Soviet Union, where it wouldn’t be published until 1988.
First published in Britain shortly before her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, was inspired by her own experiences of early adult life, including her time in a mental hospital. Plath didn’t want her mother Aurelia to know she had written novel, and some of the details were so close to reality that her publisher had concerns about being sued for libel in England, where the law obliges those being sued to prove what they said was true, rather than the plaintiff needing to prove it was false. The sensitive nature of the material meant that Plath had to change details to “disguise her all-too-literal rendering of people and places,” according to biographer Carl Rollyson; to further mask her identity, she fictionalized herself as the character Esther Greenwood and published the novel under the pen name Victoria Lucas.
When Plath was eventually revealed as the author of The Bell Jar a few years later, Aurelia didn’t initially want the novel to be published in the U.S.—she said Plath had never wanted it published stateside, and she was unhappy with the portrayal of characters in the novel whom she believed had tried to help Sylvia in real life. (The Bell Jar wasn’t published in the states until 1971.)
Allegedly, the trouble Plath took to change details apparently didn’t go far enough: According to writer Joanne Greenberg, one of the women who worked with Plath during her time in magazine publishing told her, “‘She wrote The Bell Jar and told on all of us … she told about the abortion that so-and-so had, and the affair that so-and-so had. We could never look at each other again, because these were secrets we had had.’” The details in The Bell Jar were such a bombshell that they apparently led to the end of two marriages.
Beginning in 1958, Truman Capote dropped hints about a novel based on real events that he believed would be his masterpiece. He called it Answered Prayers. What events his novel would feature wasn’t clear until 1975, when he published preview chapters from his work-in-progress in Esquire. The second of these chapters, titled “La Côte Basque 1965,” set off a firestorm.
When his friends and other members of New York society read the chapter, it became all too clear what the real events Capote was fictionalizing—and exactly who the people behind the pseudonyms were. One of the most notorious examples was the case of William Woodward (David Hopkins in the novel) and his wife Ann (also the name Capote chose for his character). In 1955, Ann shot William in their home; she claimed she thought he was a burglar, but some believed it had been a calculated murder—and it was the latter interpretation that Capote fictionalized. Ann died by suicide shortly before the chapter was published. Some believed she did so because she had been told what would be in it.
Capote’s friends cast him out of their social circle, and he never ended up finished Answered Prayers, which was published posthumously in the 1980s.
Joyce Carol Oates received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her 1992 novella Black Water, which drew from an extremely controversial real-life event. In July 1969, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy left a party with Mary Jo Kopechne—a former staffer on his late brother Robert’s presidential campaign—and accidentally drove his car off the guardrail-less Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy escaped from the car and attempted to rescue Kopechne, but failed. He didn’t report the incident until the day after the crash, by which time Kopechne was dead. Kennedy eventually pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended sentence.
In Oates’s book, the equivalent character to Kennedy is referred to simply as “The Senator”; Kopechne is fictionalized as Elizabeth Anne Kelleher (known as Kelly), telling the story from her point of view as she is trapped in the car following its fall, with the eponymous black water all around her. Oates told The New York Times that she began jotting notes down after the crash, and revisited the idea during a time when there was “a climate particularly inhospitable to women.”
Rather than tie the book to a specific incident, though, she said that she “wanted the story to be somewhat mythical, the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.” Her process while writing seems to reflect that: She explained to Charlie Rose that she didn’t do any research at all. “I wanted to write about the victim, and there’s very little about the victim,” she said. “All the focus was on the senator. And that seemed to me really part of the horror—that the young woman would have had a story to tell, but she didn’t survive.”