I’ve just been writing a review of “Fellow Travellers” by T.C. Worsley for Speak Its Name (review will go up on 25th, not there yet, I’m scheduling them for one a day, which is working out well, I think) and I was struck by the similarity to part of the plot (based on real people and real events) to David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps.

Worsley’s book is based on novelist Stephen Spender and his friends and lovers in the 1930’s.

With a little digging, I found out why it seemed so familiar, when I discovered this on Stephen Spender’s Wikipedia page:

Spender sued author David Leavitt for allegedly using his relationship with “Jimmy Younger” in Leavitt’s While England Sleeps in 1994. The case was settled out of court with Leavitt removing certain portions from his text.

I found this rather interesting, because it’s often a concern of mine about putting real facts about people (changed, obviously) into gay historical novels.  In this case even though While England Sleeps was a work of fiction, no similarity to anyone living or dead, yadda yadda, the facts were similar enough for Spender to insist that the book was changed.

(It should be noted that Spender notoriously censored his own work, changing the line of one of his poems from:

Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.


Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution.)

Which is rather sad.

But my point is that I’ve taken instances of real-life happenings and used them in my books, I’m sure we all have.  I’ve seen other writers discuss the same, and I wonder whether this caution I’m now feeling should only extend to living people?

I personally think it was a bit cheeky of Leavitt to pinch the salient details of Spender’s affair with “Jimmy” (Tony Hyndham) as it wouldn’t have been at all difficult to mangle the facts sufficiently to avoid a court case.

I am gratified at least, that it was settled out of court–and I have no doubt that this was a deliberate move–because it would raise a dangerous precedent which could result in many people complaining that their life stories had been pilfered for fictional purposes.

What do you think? Is there any legal beagle out there who can define the law involved?

Should we all be a little careful when taking facts from life, especially within living memory?