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Who do you think you are then, Long John Silver?

By On May 18 2012, 12:30 am

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 (like me) 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’s book ‘The Originals’ and to Chambers Biographical Dictionary for inspiring this piece.


7 Responses to “Who do you think you are then, Long John Silver?”

  1. Erastes says:

    I have to say that I knew none of these with the exception of the Peter Pan inspirations, and only that because I saw the film… I feel very dim.

    I can’t say that any of mine are in any way based upon real people. Some attributes are either things I do, or my family do, but I’ve never thought of basing my characters on anyone real. Real people are so much duller, in my life, anyway!

    • Charlie Cochrane says:

      @ Erastes And the other thing about real people is that they do/say/have happen to them things which you’d never get past an editor. Too far fetched!

  2. JL Merrow says:

    And what about criminologist and cricketer George Ives, whom EW Hornung turned into gentleman thief Raffles? I don’t know how he might have felt about that, but I’ve read that Christopher Robin Milne always felt trapped by the image of the small boy in the smock from the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

  3. Charlie Cochrane says:

    @ jamie I’d forgotten Raffles. Well remembered.

    I’ve always felt sorry for Christopher Robin, too. I’ve seen the opinion espoused that it verged on child cruelty, depicting him in that way.

  4. Elin Gregory says:

    Like Erastes I didn’t know any of this apart from the Finding Neverland stuff and a little about Alice. I’ve always felt sorry for Christopher-robin. That must have been hell to live down when he was in his teens. On a par with ones parents posting baby pictures on Facebook.

    *blush* i have borrowed one incredibly unlikely incident from the life of Batholomew Roberts for my pirate story because you really couldn’t make it up.

    • Charlie Cochrane says:

      Is that the famous Dread Pirates Roberts? Can you tell me sometime what it is? (And do you want to borrow ‘The Originals’?)

  5. Gehayi says:

    J.R.R. Tolkien did this with his sometime friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis appears in LOTR as Treebeard the Ent, who mimics Lewis’s mannerisms and speech. Tolkien also based Beren and Luthien, the truest of true lovers from The Silmarillion on himself and his wife, Edith Mary Bratt Tolkien. Their graves even read “JOHN ROLAND REUEL TOLKIEN BEREN” and “EDITH MARY TOLKIEN LUTHIEN.”

    In To Kill a Mockingbird, many of the characters are based on people Harper Lee knew as a child. Dill Harris, the odd little boy who comes to town during the summers and plays with Jeb and Scout, is based on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote.

    Severus Snape was based, at least in part, on Rowling’s chemistry teacher, John Nettleship. He wasn’t best pleased when he learned this, but he seems to have come to terms with it.

    Luvy Pevensie was based on June Beatriz Flewett (later Jill, Lady Freud), a fourteen-year-old girl who was evacuated during the war and came to live in Lewis’s house in Oxford. This also makes Professor Digory Kirke Lewis’s self-insert.

    Stephen King does this a LOT. IT, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, The Dark Half, 1408, The Shining, The Dark Tower series, Misery, and The Body all feature important characters, if not protagonists, who are writers. The Shining features an alcoholic writer; Desperation and The Dark Half involve writers with alcohol and substance abuse problems; and The Stand features Larry Underwood, a rock-and-roll musician with alcohol and substance abuse problems. By the way, did you know that Stephen King is part of a rock group composed of writers? It’s called The Rock Bottom Remainders.

    Mark Twain did this all the time. Tom Sawyer was based on himself and two friends of his, John Briggs and Will Bowen; Huckleberry Finn was based on Tom Blankenship, the son of a sometime drunk (though he was by no means as bad as Huck’s Pap).

    Captain James T. Kirk is a second-generation Expy of Thomas Cochrane. One of Gene Roddenberry’s descriptions for the original Star Trek was, “Look, it’s Hornblower in space!”

    And poor Peter Llewelyn Davies. At the time he committed suicide, he was ill, unemployed, near bankruptcy and dealing with the horrifying news that his wife and son both had Huntington’s disease, a hideous genetic illness that strips the ability to reason, speak, or move…but does not kill. He had reason for despair…and yet, when he died, the newspapers all over the world blared, “PETER PAN COMMITS SUICIDE.”

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