Great Literary Characters Inspired by Real Famous People


This week will see the release of a book we’re pretty excited about: Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard , a novel inspired by the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. After the jump, we’ve put together a list of some other great novels with characters inspired by real life people that have caught the cultural consciousness — excepting works that are primarily autobiographical, and focusing on books that are not just historical fiction, but true adaptations (names are changed!) of people and events. Read through our list after the jump, and if we missed your favorite in this category, be sure to add it on in the comments.

Frances and Bernard = Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell in Frances and Bernard , Carlene Bauer

Flannery O’Connor — our stiff-lipped, whip-smart Catholic girl — met the manic, handsome poet Robert Lowell at Yaddo, an artist’s colony, in the late 1940s. As the story goes, she was smitten, and he was mostly uninterested — she stayed unmarried until her death (and she is only known to have kissed one person, a textbook salesman, obviously), he married thrice with all the passion one might expect from a mania-driven poet. In Bauer’s epistolary novel, she imagines the relationship that might have been, and readers can happily indulge in both a well-written, compelling love story, and if they’re anything like us, a little bit of romantic wish-fulfillment for one of their favorite authors.

Victor Maskell = Sir Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable , John Banville

The protagonist of Banville’s stupendous novel is Victor Maskell, who is based closely on Sir Anthony Blunt, the British art historian and University of London professor who was exposed as a Soviet spy late in life. Banville’s topic is not so much the ins and outs of spying, but the phenomenon of having one’s past thrust into the daylight as an old, sick man — this is an existential novel, one that will make you laugh uproariously and then question every thought you’ve ever had, probably on the same page. Bonus: Graham Greene is in here too, though he doesn’t come off too well.

Willie Stark = Huey “Kingfish” Long in All the King’s Men , Robert Penn Warren

This famous and excellent (and Humpty Dumpty-referencing) novel, which one the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, traces the rise and fall of populist Southern governor Willie Stark, who is based on the outspoken and controversial politician Huey “Kingfish” Long, former governor and then senator of Louisiana. In his introduction to the 1953 Modern Library edition of the novel, Warren wrote, “The difference between the person Huey P. Long and the fiction Willie Stark, may be indicated by the fact that in the verse play [Proud Flesh] the name of the politician was Talos — the name of the brutal, blank-eyed ‘iron groom’ of Spenser’s Fairie Queene, the pitiless servant of the knight of justice. My conception grew wider, but that element always remained, and Willie Stark remained, in one way, Willie Talos. In other words, Talos is the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself. The book, however, was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.”

Mark Rampion and Denis Burlap = D.H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry in Point Counter Point , Aldous Huxley

Yes, Huxley’s satiric view of intellectual life in the ’20s includes himself, but this is no novelized memoir. The book, whose structure, as you might surmise from the title, is based on the musical principle of counterpoint, consisting of interwoven stories, each with their own distinct “melody,” that add up to something greater. Among the figures that appear in the novel are D.H. Lawrence, Charles Baudelaire (though he obviously did not live in the ’20s), and John Middleton Murry. Complex and even scandalous, the novel is both a good story and a constant wink.

Alice Blackwell = Laura Bush in American Wife , Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld’s third novel is the story of Alice Blackwell — a thinly veiled portrait of Laura Bush — who grows up in a Democratic family, but ends up in the White House, married to a Republican president whose policies and war she increasingly disagrees with. Though we’re not sure how we feel about novels that dramatize the lives of the living, we still found this one well-written and fascinating. And to be taken with a grain of salt, of course.

Trilby and Svengali = Anna Bishop and Nicolas-Charles Bochsa in Trilby , George du Maurier

The famous figures who inspired George du Maurier may not be familiar to you, they were probably familiar to the readers of this 1894 novel, which was second in popularity only to Dracula during its time: the beautiful opera singer Anna Bishop and her manager/lover Nicolas-Charles Bochsa became Trilby, a half-Irish Parisienne artists’ model (who pointedly cannot sing), and Svengali, a dastardly hypnotist. Ah, romance!

Ravelstein = Allan Bloom in Ravelstein , Saul Bellow

The eponymous subject of Saul Bellow’s final, plotless novel is a thinly disguised version of the author’s friend and colleague at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, Allan Bloom. Of the philosopher, Bellow remarked, “People only want the factual truth. Well, the truth is that Allan was a very superior person, great-souled. When people proclaim the death of the novel, I sometimes think they are really saying that there are no significant people to write about. Allan was certainly one.”

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon = Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in Mason & Dixon , Thomas Pynchon

We’re cheating a little bit here, because (as we’re sure you can tell from the title, even if you’re unfamiliar with the book), Pynchon does in fact give his characters their real names. But the rest of it is such an insane, polymathic farce, all goofy time warp and anachronism, and more importantly, the story of the title characters is in any event only another story in the novel, told by a certain Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, that we feel like we’ve made the right decision.