I often wonder this same thing when reading the classics, with unfortunately no way to get that extra insight, that authorial intent. (That said, while I find it intriguing to know authorial intent, it doesn't mean I read the book that way personally, and that's totally okay.) And now, HuffPo Books posted an article yesterday about some of the true stories behind some of the great novels. Maybe not "inspiration" per se, but this more than whets my appetite:
According to Jack London, "You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club." London himself took the inspiration for The Call of the Wild (1903) from his time spent living in Canada and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush when high-quality sled dogs -- like those that feature in the book -- were in impossibly high demand. The stories and inspirations behind fifteen more of literature's most memorable titles are explained here:
In January 1872, the death of a 35-year-old woman was reported in the Russian press: smartly dressed and carrying a bag containing a change of clothes, the girl had thrown herself under a freight train at Yasenki Station outside Moscow. The woman was identified as Anna Pirogova, a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy's wife and the mistress of his good friend and neighbour, Alexander Bibikov. It soon transpired that Alexander had told Anna that he planned to leave her and marry his son's new governess, and, unable to cope, she had left him a brief note -- "You are my murderer; be happy, if an assassin can be happy" -- and fled. Tolstoy himself attended Anna's post-mortem the following day, and by all accounts the sight of the unrecognisable body of a woman he had known so well stayed with him long afterwards, so that when he came to begin a new novel more than a year later he already had its tragic conclusion in mind.
The Birds (1952), Daphne Du Maurier
Dame Daphne Du Maurier is well known for having taken inspiration for some of her most celebrated works from her adopted home county of Cornwall in the far southwest of England. Jamaica Inn (1936) was inspired by an overnight stay at the real-life Jamaica Inn, an isolated 18th century pub on Bodmin Moor, in 1930. Frenchman's Creek (1941) was inspired by Readymoney Cove, where Du Maurier owned a holiday home on the coast. And the imposing Manderley estate in Rebecca (1938) was at least partly based on Menabilly, a grand country house that Du Maurier herself moved into in 1943. It was while at Menabilly that she saw a flock of seagulls following a plow at a nearby farm and was struck by a simple yet unnerving thought -- what would happen if the birds attacked? The resulting story, The Birds, first appeared in Du Maurier's collection The Apple Tree in 1952.
Joseph Heller joined the US Army Air Corps in 1942 at the age of 19, and went on to take part in more than 50 European bombing raids before the end of the Second World War. His military service affected him greatly -- he became an angst-ridden chronic nail-biter, with a habit for screaming in his sleep -- and it took him another eight years to begin dealing with his experiences in writing. After a few dreary post-war years working as a copywriter, one afternoon in 1953 a line simply popped into Heller's head: "It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone [he had yet to name Captain Yossarian] fell madly in love with him." Heller wrote the first twenty pages of what he presumed would merely be a short story over the next seven days, but it took him another eight years to complete what would eventually become Catch-22.
Crime & Punishment (1866), Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When he began writing it in the early 1860s, Dostoyevsky originally envisioned Crime & Punishment as a novella entitled "The Drunkard", in which he intended to explore the consequences of alcoholism on family life. That was until he discovered the writings of a French writer and murderer named Pierre François Lacenaire, who had been executed in Paris in 1836 for the brutal killing of a young man and his mother. While in prison, Lacenaire had written essays and poems, met with journalists and researchers, given interviews, speeches and press conferences, volunteered for psychological studies, and even offered to have a life mask made of his face, all on an apparent quest to become an icon of social injustice and guarantee his notoriety endured long after his death. It's unclear whether Dostoyevsky had already created the character of Raskolnikov by the time he heard of Lacenaire, but there are a number of striking similarities between his murder of the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna and her half-sister Lizaveta in Crime & Punishment and Lacenaire's own crimes 30 years earlier.
Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley
Frankenstein was famously written in response to Lord Byron's suggestion in the summer of 1816 that the guests at his villa on Lake Geneva -- including the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his future wife, Mary -- should each write a ghost story to pass the time. After initial reservations, 19-year-old Mary more than rose to the challenge by penning what is now considered masterpiece of gothic horror, inspired by a single terrifying image that popped into her mind as she lay in bed. "When I placed my head on my pillow..." she recalled in the introduction to her novel, "I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision -- the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." The first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously just two years later, followed by a second edition in 1822, a stage version in 1823, and finally a revised third edition in 1831 dedicated to Mary's then late husband, who had died nine years earlier.
In July 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle met an English journalist named Bertram Fletcher Robinson on board a ship returning to England from the Boer War. The pair quickly became friends and the following year Doyle agreed to visit Robinson at his home in Devon, southwest England, with an eye to collaborating on a new novel. Robinson took Doyle up onto Dartmoor, a vast ancient moorland (and now a National Park), and regaled him with an old folktale about a notorious local squire named Richard Cabell who had apparently sold his soul to the Devil -- when he died in 1677, local legend claims a monstrous pack of jet black hounds descended from the moors to escort his soul into Hell. Although Doyle had agreed to co-author a book with Robinson, after putting pen to paper the story quickly evolved into a new Sherlock Holmes mystery (his first in eight years) and Robinson's input was relegated, in his own words, to "assistant plot producer."
Jude The Obscure (1895), Thomas Hardy
It is unclear precisely who inspired Thomas Hardy's tale of a young working-class man's struggle to become a scholar, but it seems likely that the eponymous Jude Hawley was at least partly based on Hardy's tragic friend Horace Moule. Born in 1832, Moule earned a place at Oxford University in 1851, but failed to receive his degree. Moving to Cambridge University three years later, it took him another 14 years to finally complete his studies, during which time he battled alcoholism and severe depression until finally, in September 1873, he committed suicide by cutting his own throat as he lay in bed. He was just 41 years old.
The four eponymous March Sisters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women were all based on the author and her three sisters. Louisa herself was the strong-willed protagonist Jo; her elder sister Anna was Meg; her youngest sister May was Amy; and her middle sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of 23, was Beth. The setting and the sisters may have been the alike, but the events and circumstances around them were not: the Marches were by no means rich, but the Alcotts lived in near abject poverty for many years during Louisa's childhood. What's more, the March family's father -- a philanthropic and scholarly Civil War hero -- was strikingly different from that of Alcott's own father, Bronson, a pacifist vegan schoolteacher and an early advocate of transcendentalism.
Middlemarch (1872), George Eliot
In January 1869, George Eliot wrote a list of tasks in her journal that she wanted to complete in the coming year, one of which was "a novel called Middlemarch." Although Eliot seemed determined to set to work, progress on the new novel was slow and when her son Thornie contracted a fatal case of tuberculosis later that year she ceased writing completely; by the time Thornie died in October, Eliot had produced just three chapters of what would eventually be an 86-chapter work, and she promptly shelved the project. By all accounts Eliot did not recommence writing until more than a year later, when, in November 1870, she began an entirely new work entitled Miss Brooke. This new story introduced an eponymous character named Dorothea, but sometime during Miss Brooke's development Eliot saw the opportunity to merge its narrative with that of the three chapters she had shelved the previous year, and Middlemarch was born.
Moby-Dick (1851), Herman Melville
Herman Melville's own experiences on board a Pacific Ocean whaling ship, the Acushnet, in the early 1840s provided the primary inspiration for his novel Moby-Dick, and later editors and commentators have since even been able to draw parallels between Melville's real-life fellow crewmembers and the characters in his book. The Acushnet was far from his only inspiration, however, as Melville was doubtless also influenced by the true story of a whaling ship named the Essex that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the central Pacific in 1820. Melville later met the son of one of the Essex's eight surviving crewmembers during his time on the Acushnet, and after the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851 met with the ship's captain, George Pollard, whom he later described as "one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met."
Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe
It is widely believed that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was based on the true story of real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, but that's by no means guaranteed. In fact, there are such telling inconsistencies between the two tales -- Selkirk was voluntarily marooned in the Pacific, while Crusoe was shipwrecked in the Caribbean; he was stranded for just four years, compared to Crusoe's 28; and Selkirk was alone, while Crusoe's tale involves encounters with natives, cannibals and pirates -- that some editors have suggested Defoe likely had another story in mind. It may be that Crusoe's tale was based on the 17th century sea captain Robert Knox's 19-year imprisonment on Ceylon, which was published as An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (1681), or else on the British doctor Henry Pitman, who escaped from a British penal colony in the Caribbean before being shipwrecked on a nearby island. Alternatively, there could be some truth in Defoe's own claim that Robinson Crusoe was the true story of a man he knew personally, and for whom he simply served as memoirist. Whatever its true inspiration, there's no doubting the success or impact of Defoe's novel, which ran to four editions in its first year alone and has remained enduringly popular ever since.
Robert Louis Stevenson had already written a play about Deacon Brodie -- an 18th century Edinburgh city councillor who led a double life as a burglar -- when in 1885 he had a dream about a mild-mannered man transforming into a monster. His wife Fanny later recalled how, "In the small hours of one morning... I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey-tale.'" She had woken him, she later discovered, at what would eventually become Jekyll's first transformation into Mr Hyde.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), John Buchan
John Buchan was recovering from a stomach ulcer at a nursing home in Broadstairs on the far southeast coast of England he began work on what he referred to as his first "shocker" in 1914. Buchan reportedly took the title of the novel from a wooden staircase that once ran from the clifftops at Broadstairs down to the beach, although there are several conflicting accounts: one version of the story has Buchan's young daughter running down the stairs two at a time and announcing that there were "39 steps" down to the beach, while another claims that as there were actually 78 steps Buchan either halved the number simply to make a snappier title, or else changed it because he was 39 years old at the time.
Three Men In A Boat (1889), Jerome K. Jerome
In the mid 1880s, Jerome K Jerome came up with the idea of writing a straightforward travel guide to the River Thames, including descriptions of several historical sites along its course. As he began to compile it, however, Jerome's guide became increasingly filled with humorous anecdotes and bantering conversations recalled from boat trips he had taken along the river from London to Oxford with two of his friends, George Wingrave and Carl Henschel. Together, the three men became the eponymous Three Men In A Boat, with the addition of Montmorency the dog having, "as Jerome admits, developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog", according to Oxford World's Classics.
Harper Lee has long denied claims that To Kill A Mockingbird is an autobiographical work, but rather a reflection of an author simply writing about what he or she knows and has experienced first hand. Either way, it's hard not to see parallels between her Pulitzer Prize-winning classic and her childhood growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Just like Scout, Lee's father practiced as a lawyer, and in 1919 was faced with defending two black men accused of the murder of a local white shopkeeper (both men - a father and son - were later hanged). Moreover, Lee, like Scout, was a tomboy in her youth, and her eldest brother Edwin, like Jem, was four years her senior. She wrote the book in the years following the death of her mother in 1951, and in the story Scout too has lost her mother. And even the character of Dill, who lives next door to the Finch family during the summer, is modelled on her childhood friend Truman Capote, who would spend the summer with his aunt in Alabama while his mother visited New York.
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