Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Autobiographical Author/Character Match-ups

I think most authors roll their eyes whenever they hear the inevitable question, 'Are your characters based on yourself?' The answer is usually a resounding, 'No way!' However, anyone who cares enough to compare the parallels may decide that the question, although a bit trite, is a reasonable one. So much so that the term 'autobiographical fiction' isn't even remotely considered an oxymoron. 

So why do they do it? For every straight talking memoirist, there could be dozens of dissembling fiction authors revealing their life stories, but adroitly ascribing them to some made-up alter-ego. My theory is that writers are a private bunch who feel far more comfortable hiding behind the shelter of somebody else. They may retreat at any time with hands up declaring, 'Nope, I never owned that!' Our feelings may prove to be more confrontational, bizarre or brutally frank than we'd care to admit. Transferring them to a make-believe person who can't challenge us on it may be the ideal solution. 

So here are ten historical examples of writers who probably opted to stand behind the, 'No, that's not me,' facade, while their friends and acquaintances winked and said, 'If you say so.' 

1) Charles Dickens is David Copperfield
This story was Dickens' own personal favourite, which is possibly because of all the meaningful parallels he created between his hero's life and his own. David's working life takes a similar trajectory to Charles', including his earliest stints in law offices to his writing career. The coincidences extend to more delicate issues too. Both Charles and David marry pretty women who turn out to be super childish and offer their husbands no intellectual stimulation, at least in Charles' opinion. When David shares his feelings about his unexpected success in fiction writing, we can rest assured that he's speaking for two men. Their inverted initials, CD and DC were probably no accident either, piling up the evidence that these two were essentially one and the same. (Review is here.)

2) Louisa May Alcott is Jo March
Louisa's publisher had been urging her to write a wholesome book for girls, but she refused for a long time because it didn't interest her. At last she agreed, to get him off her back (and no doubt for the money 💰) After stressing a bit, Louisa decided to model the story after the four girls she knew best; herself and her three sisters. Not only is tomboyish, gauche, bookish Jo a faithful copy of Louisa, but Meg, Beth and Amy are supposedly dead-ringers for Anna, Elizabeth and Abba-May. She drew on their childhood games for ideas, and stayed reasonably true to their destinies, including Anna's homebody lifestyle, Elizabeth's death, May's experiences in Europe, and her own rise as a bestselling author. She did make some concessions to the demands of the general public by creating a husband for Jo, although spinster Louisa refused to marry her off to the rich, dashing Laurie. She chose instead a modest, threadbare Professor who ticked no boxes for romantic stereotypes. (Reviews start here.)

3) Charlotte Bronte is Lucy Snowe
This must have been a wishful and cathartic exercise indeed, since Charlotte possibly formed Lucy to be an improved version of herself. They started on the same footing as modest, quiet English teachers in Belgian boarding schools, each teeming with sassy and passionate inner lives. But while Charlotte's dishy professor Constantine Heger didn't return her feelings, Lucy hit the jackpot after a rough ride. And Monsieur Paul Emanuel was single as a bonus 😉 In many instances throughout the story, Lucy was collected and bold enough to deliver responses Charlotte might have made to several people in retrospect. In reality we never get the chance to go back and say what we wished we had, but fiction authors have a good opportunity to tamper with the memories, putting words in their substitutes' mouths. (Here is my review.)

4) Betty Smith is Francie Nolan
I think it's generally accepted that thoughtful, imaginative Francie's underprivileged childhood in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn was a duplicate of Betty's own. They shared several incidents which stood out in Betty's memory, not to mention the same grinding early jobs. That's why Francie's work in the clipping agency, where she was basically a human search engine, was described in vivid, on-the-spot detail by Betty. Sadly they also shared some more unfortunate features in common, such as having brothers who were obviously favoured by their mothers, although it was covered up as much as possible. But throughout her novel, Betty left us all in no doubt! (Check out my review.)

5) William Makepeace Thackeray is Captain William Dobbin
Whether or not his friends agreed it was a totally accurate representation, it would seem that at least on some level, the author honestly pictured himself as this stodgy, awkward plodder with the heroic and gentlemanly nature. Both Williams were madly in love with someone else's wife for many years. Perhaps William the author was using William the character as a means to purge some of his own intense feelings. Later on, he created an entirely new character, Arthur Pendennis, who might have been even more of a substitute for himself. Both Vanity Fair and Pendennis are thick enough to contain a lot of soul-searching. (See my review.)

6) Harper Lee is Scout Finch
This one-book-wonder's workmates gifted her a fully paid year off to work on a novel. She made the most of every moment, basing the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird on a sorry event that happened in her own childhood. Although it's purely conjectural whether Lee purposely set out to model the precocious and perceptive Scout on herself, it can't be denied that like her young heroine, she did have a lawyer for a dad and an older brother who she trailed after and aimed to impress. It's more widely accepted that Harper Lee's childhood playmate, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for Scout's buddy Dill Harris. That adds at least a little credence to the suspicion that she herself was Scout. And just for the record, her dad Amasa Lee totally bought into it, and signed autographs as Atticus Finch. (More on Harper Lee here.)

7) Anne Bronte is Agnes Gray
This one seems to be a fairly straightforward case, which we hardly needed to have confirmed by the author's sister Charlotte. For five years, Anne lived a downtrodden life as a governess to snooty rich families in the Victorian era, and intended her story to be an expose about their rough and thankless lives. When creating incidents for Agnes to handle, Anne drew heavily on her own experiences in other people's houses. Her own employers, the Inghams and Robinsons, appear to be perfect counterparts for Agnes' Bloomfields and Murrays. Their two stories diverge toward the end, when Agnes marries a young Anglican curate named Edward Weston. But perhaps even that's intended as a best case scenario of Anne's life, since it's rumoured she was in love with her father's own curate William Weightman, who later died of cholera. Poor Anne had no easy life. (Re-read and review coming soon.)

8) Leo Tolstoy is Konstantin Levin
Levin is an absolute legend, and my favourite of all the characters Tolstoy created. However, we needn't look far before we begin suspecting Tolstoy of a vested interest in making Levin so appealing. Throughout the novel, Levin is Tolstoy's own mouthpiece. Whenever our modest and socially inept young hero opens his mouth, he's bound to spout something Tolstoy has spent hours considering himself. Serf welfare and a personal desire to get up close and personal with the land drives each of these landowners. They share the same idealism, existential angst, and even identical religious epiphanies. With all this in mind, it comes as totally no surprise that Levin's charming romance with Kitty is a counterpart of Tolstoy's own relationship with his wife Sophia. And to cap it all off, the fact that Leo's Russian name translate to Lev is surely no coincidence either. (My review is here.)

9) Lucy Maud Montgomery is Emily Byrd Starr
Montgomery had been getting burned out on her long-running Anne series, but fans were still demanding more. She thought she'd be tied to that 'tiresome' redhead forever, and gradually attempted to wean herself in another direction when she felt she'd taken Anne as far as she could. She refreshed herself by creating a main character she considered a closer match for her own personality. Emily shares Lucy's intense calling to become a writer, even without her family's support. Both girls had deep, brooding natures, and reputations for being somewhat aloof and inscrutable. They were both brought up by stern relatives in the absence of their parents. Lucy experienced some transcendent moments of ecstasy when she felt as if a thin layer separated her own world from a more spiritually rich one. She referred to them as 'the flash' and transferred the phenomenon to Emily.

10) J.K. Rowling is Hermione Granger
Okay, this is a more fun example which obviously can't be strictly proven, since there's nowhere on earth like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But in this case the author is still alive and has actually agreed at times that she has a soft spot for this young witch because Hermione was very much like herself as a schoolgirl; highly intelligent, somewhat unkempt and with the reputation for being a bit of a nerd. I don't know for sure whether Rowling shunned the company of other girls to hang around with a couple of misfit boys, but I wouldn't be at all surprised. We know her life hasn't always been easy, with a broken marriage that stimulated her desire to give writing a shot. At this stage she's come into her own brilliant career, like Hermione, and we trust that she's enjoying life with her own Ron Weasley. 

Are any of your favourites on this list? Do you believe I'm correct in my conjectures? And as always, please add any more to the comments.


  1. Fascinating post. Many writers do indeed write themselves into stories. Asking them about it is reasonable. One can picture Leo Tolstoy saying the things that Konstantin does in Anna Karenina.

    I would add Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman to the list.

    1. Hi Brian, thanks for the lead. I haven't read many Philip Roth novels although I know he was prolific. And yes, a pretty accurate way to figure out what Leo thought might be to go and read what Konstantin said 😉

  2. I agree and for the most part think that they were writing themselves the way they wanted to see themselves--I think Dickens wished Catherine would die as Dora obligingly did.

    I don't know much about Thackeray but I find it interesting that he modeled Cpt Dobbin on himself.

    1. Hi Jane, it's a really interesting exercise for them. So true about Catherine/Dora 😄 I wonder if all those good girls who keep popping up throughout Dickens novels were at least partly based on the young sister-in-law he was so fond of. Fascinating to reflect.

      From the small bit of research I've done, it would seem Thackeray lived a sad and anxious life with a wife who had serious mental health problems and deep clinical depression 😢

  3. Embarrassingly, I've only read three of these, but I concur, especially with Leo and Betty. It's been awhile since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I am pretty sure you are accurate. I knew Lee and Capote were good friends, but I never knew that about Dill.

    Could I include "Herman Melville is Ahab" in this, too?

  4. Hi Ruth, Lee and Capote's friendship, dating right back to their childhood, would be an interesting one to trace. I believe she might have even helped him with his research for In Cold Blood.

    The addition of Melville and Ahab is great, and opens lots of food for speculation 🐳 The length and depth of the book alone proves a similar intense focus at the outset 😉

    1. She did help him - even in moral support. I think it may be included in the film "In Cold Blood," in which Lee travels with Capote to investigate and interview for the book. It's a really cool relationship: two writers and their moral support.

    2. I love literary friendships. Would enjoy delving more into that one. And I never knew there was a film version of In Cold Blood. Might have to look for it when I read the book, although it sounds a bit chilling 😮

  5. 10/10 for Alcott being Jo March - I read somewhere that she would actually respond to fan mail "in character" if someone wrote addressing her as "Ms March". Alexander Chee has had some great thoughts on this (he wrote the essay collection "How To Write An Autobiographical Novel" last year), I highly recommend checking out the podcast recordings of his interviews at the Sydney Writers' Festival last year ;)

    1. Hi Sheree, thanks for that lead about Alexander Chee. He has a great subject 👍