I didn’t do a literary degree, although the biography of famous historical players and politicians does bend one that way – if only because such characters are often larger than the characters in novels. More often than not, fiction authors too are eccentric or otherwise fascinating: but they tend to come out of the process with many plaudits and total control, whereas their fiction characters may at best go through nightmares, or at worst come to a sticky end.
It occurred to me the other day that some revealing biographies could come out of reversing the roles, whereby the book’s lead hero or villain becomes the writer, and the writers get to suffer whatever verdict their characters might have in mind for them. But one would have to give the character only those motives ascribed to them by the author….and try to give the creator that which he or she deserved. Anything else, my sense of fair play tells me, would be offside.
Count Dracula, for example, had very few redeeming features (they were teeth, mainly) but he’s always struck me as vengeful. His book might be called Bram Stoker gets it in the Neck, or perhaps Stoker’s bloodless coup. As it happens, Bram in real life did get it in the neck – his end was very bloody indeed – but that’s neither here nor there: we’re talking fanciful biography, not scholarly treatise.
Mary Shelley’s monster put together by Baron Frankenstein was, by contrast, a sad and really quite harmless chap who might pen one of those Tragic Childhood epics called, say, Mommie Dearest. Raskalnikov would probably write off the author of Crime and Punishment with a hatchet job, The Tosh of Dostoyevsky.
In this game of rôle reversal, you wouldn’t want to be Oscar Wilde: the poor old dear had a downfall worse than most as it was, but can you imagine letting Dorian Gray loose with quill and parchment? It would be pure Peter Mandelson from start to finish. I’m thinking titles like The Secret Uphill Gardener, The Bladder in Reading Gaol, The Windy career of a Lady’s Fanny, and 1001 tortures of an Irish Queen.
It’s a rich seam, this one: What the Butler bore by Jeeves, Conan the Barbarian by Sherlock Holmes, The Life of Mainly Aimless by Lucky Jim, and so on.
But I can’t think of any authors who would have to endure more slings and arrows in this game than Charles Dickens. Shakespeare’s plays may have had more characters, but almost all of them were real figures from history. In terms of the novel as we understand it, Dickens created more hostages to fortune than David Cameron.
It might be a veritable charactercade of complaint: Please can we have no More by Oliver Twist; Great Expectorations by Pip; and What a time to die by Edwin Drood.
Alternatively, the characters could take the approach of writing their own self-exculpatory memoirs. I lost my head over a Woman by Charles Darnley; I never ‘it ‘er ‘onest by Bill Sykes; and- perhaps most revealing of all – I was Dickens’ double by David Copperfield.