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D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence was notorious for using lovers, friends, and acquaintances as thinly disguised characters in his sexually explicit novels. (Photo: public domain)

Many famous writers have used the people in their lives as grist for the authorial mill. The spicy roman à clef has long been a frequent visitor to bookshop shelves. Even more common are realistic novels based on the lives of actual people, but where no deliberate effort is made to link with the objects of inspiration. In other words, the real people are convenient sources of material, yet too obscure to be of interest to the reading public. The writer’s own life may also end up on the page. If his own experiences predominate, a struggle with illness, say, we call these works autobiographical novels, but in many cases, the lives of people around the writer are also included and the situation becomes less clear-cut.

Opinions vary as to the merits of drawing on real people for inspiration. The competing view is that characters are better created from imagination especially for the job of telling a particular story, highlighting some aspect of human nature, or revealing the human condition. The latter being that rather nebulous concept which “includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, or awareness regarding the inescapability of death” (Wikipedia). A third position, which I am inclined to share, claims pure imagining is impossible.

H. G. Wells made heavy use of autobiographical material – and of real people and their lives – in his work. Even more famous for the habit was D. H. Lawrence, whom H. E. Bates roundly criticized for the practice. Bates claimed not to do this himself, and maintained that he depended instead on the more respectable method of imagination. But is this really the case? Having read Bates’ three-volume autobiography, I can see much of his own life in his work. For example, as a young man, he worked as a newspaper reporter, just like his character in Love for Lydia. It is probable that all writers of character novels draw on their own lives to one extent or another. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. Some are better at disguising this than others, however. Writers like H. E. Bates probably make use of their own experience less consciously, and so it seems to them they are not being autobiographical when in fact they are.

While discussing H. G. Wells’ character, biographer Lovat Dickson writes, “[Wells] had, in fact, an expressed distaste for party politics and intrigue. It was what made him so irritable with the Fabians. This is a perfectly natural attitude for an artist. But he had the writer’s curiosity about personality.” Dickson makes the point that Wells is using real events and personalities in order to get closer to life in his books. There is nothing so real as reality, in other words.

Yet, as I have noted, others seem to disagree with what at first blush seems an unassailable position. Just as H. E. Bates placed heavy emphasis on imagination rather than stealing from the real world, Henry James criticized Wells’ use of the autobiographical form, “which puts a premium on the loose, the improvised, the cheap and easy.” In other words, real life does not necessarily do the best job of revealing character and exploring the realities of the human condition. Consciously contrived characters and situations can present insights more clearly. The dispute seems to centre on which has more impact: the portrayal of accurate but ambiguous reality or vivid character creation and storytelling designed to make a particular chosen impression.

A critic for the Calgary Herald touched on this issue in a review of Margaret Drabble’s The Gates of Ivory. “[The novel is a] tour de force for those of us who believe fiction can offer a reality and truth beyond that of non-fiction.” The statement raises an interesting question: Do imaginative writers of fiction have better perception and insight into human nature than writers who depend on real people, or is it the case, as I have suggested above, that contrived presentation simply allows easier visibility and interpretation.

Personally, I have long preferred biographies to character novels, and it is the bedrock feeling of reality of the former that appeals to me, along with the opportunity to make up my own mind about the significance of actions and events. Surely, fiction writers inspired by the character and lives of real people are able to provide some of the same benefits. The problem with imagined characters and situations, divorced as they are from the constraints of reality, is the greater risk of persuasion to the author’s own peculiar point of view; that is to say, of being inadvertently propagandized! On the other hand, there is always the touchstone of recognition when a writer’s insights ring true regardless of their origin.