Have you ever read the book (or seen the excellent television adaptation) about the beautiful but doomed Hugh Lygon (or is it Alastair Graham?) son of the exiled William Lygon. What about those wonderful detective novels featuring Eric Whelpton, or the ones with the penetratingly clever Dr Joseph Bell? No? Bet you have. I can’t believe you haven’t come across Sebastian Flyte or Peter Wimsey or Sherlock Holmes; I guess it’s just their ‘originals’ which confused the situation.
Many authors use their friends (or historical figures) as inspiration for their characters, perhaps influenced by their appearance, adventures, something unusual they’ve said or done. It’s nothing new – even Shakespeare is said to have based Yorick on Richard Tarlton. Certain authors seem to have made a habit of putting their friends into their stories – I’d have been very wary of getting too pally with Evelyn Waugh, you’d have been almost bound to end up in one of his books.
Some larger than life figures seem to inspire many fictional equivalents; Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower and Captain Savage have all replicated Thomas Cochrane’s exploits.
Rupert Brooke has spawned a host of characters – including the March brothers in E M Forster’s unfinished Arctic Summer – as have Winston Churchill and W H Auden. Jane Austen modelled Captain Harville on her brother Francis Austen, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu turning down Alexander Pope’s advances may have led him to depict her as Sappho.
Most of us know that Alice in Wonderland was Alice Liddell or that the Llewelyn Davies boys were the inspiration for Peter Pan and the Darling children, but the thing which excites me is finding little known gems like this. Did you know that it was Long John Silver’s (W E Henley’s) daughter calling J M Barrie ‘my fwendy’ instead of ‘my friendy’ which led to his creating the name Wendy. And that the man who inspired ‘Just William’ served in WWII under ‘Biggles’.
I wonder how people feel to be captured for posterity in a certain way. Do the people who visit Alice Liddell’s grave in Lyndhurst always think of that little girl in smock and pinafore, chasing white rabbits, rather than Mrs Hargreaves, mother of three sons, two of whom died in the great war? William Lygon wasn’t exiled because, like Lord Marchmain, he took a mistress – it was his interest in those of his own sex which led to his disgrace and social banishment. Perhaps for both of these characters it’s better to be remembered as their literary equivalents?
I think this particularly applies to the Llewelyn Davies family, pictured forever as contented parents, adventurous children and their strange, perennially young companion Peter Pan, whether we imagine them in their Disney version or the slightly harsher version in the play/book. The truth, played out after the characters had been immortalised in Barrie’s version, is both sad and strange. The father, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, was dead within three years of the play’s opening (he didn’t predecease it, as ‘Finding Neverland’ depicts) – Sylvia, the mother, died a further three years on. Peter, one of the inspirations for Peter Pan, committed suicide in 1960, George died in WWI and, perhaps most tragic of all, Michael died by drowning in an ‘accident’, which might just have been a suicide pact with Rupert Buxton (they were most likely lovers).
When you see the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, you’re looking at Michael. Will you think of the wild boy or the handsome Oxford student? Both elected not to grow up.
I’m indebted to William Amos’ ‘The Originals’ and to Chambers Biographical dictionary for inspiring this piece.