The Unpainted Veil

One morning in 1956, almost a year after the publication of Moonraker, Ian Fleming received a letter from a stranger. Fleming had written three James Bond novels, but they weren’t yet as successful as he had hoped. The author of the letter was Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Glaswegian who wrote to point out how poor Bond’s choice of firearms was. Boothroyd had an expert knowledge of firearms, and Fleming didn’t. From then on Fleming took Boothroyd’s advice, and went as far as creating a character in the series called Major Boothroyd, a specialist in weapons.

Characters who appear in fiction as thinly disguised versions of real people may occur more often than we think. In the case of Fleming and Boothroyd the result was flattering. But there are far more dangerous, and less happy, examples which might serve as warnings.

Somerset Maugham brilliantly captures bohemian Paris in his novel The Magician. The magician of the title, the disturbing and sinister Oliver Haddo, is a physically and morally repulsive man. There is little to redeem him as he manipulates the innocent, invokes dark forces, and carries out terrible human experiments. The book was so shocking that initially Maugham’s agent couldn’t find a publisher. The character of Haddo was based on Aleister Crawley, the infamous occultist, who Maugham met and disliked. The resemblance was clear, complete with vanity, charisma, and amorality. The magician comes out of the book badly, but Crawley was pleased with the further noteriety that followed. In keeping with his bizarre behaviour he reviewed the book in Vanity Fair, signing the review as Oliver Haddo. It’s difficult to know whether this response was just affectation. It is reported that later in life Crawley resented Maugham.

Once a book is published, and especially after it has gained success, there is no going back. The characters are out there. If there is damage done, it is done. There’s the insulting representation of Hugh Walpole as Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale (Maugham again) or the character Adam Lang, an ex-prime minister guilty of war crimes, who resembles Tony Blair in more ways than Tony Blair would be comfortable with, in Robert Harris’ The Ghost. These authors have found ways of saying through fiction what they could never say in real life for fear of libel.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

For the writer it is an encouragement to know that inspiration for characters is all around. And for everyone else it is a warning to be extra careful around writers.

Sources: The Secret Life of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie – Charles Osbourne

Agatha Christie: A Life – Laura Thompson

Ian Fleming and James Bond – Ben McIntyre

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