5 Real People Behind The Storybooks

antique booksSome of the best stories in literature contain characters that seem very real.  That’s because they were taken from people the author’s actually knew or had read about.  I’ve written about Lewis Carroll taking the character of Alice from one of his young friends (which is rather disturbing).  See: The Dark Side of Wonderland: The Scandals of Lewis Carroll.  Additionally, we’ve talked about the real Three Musketeers.  Here are five more literary figures that were real people.


Long John Silver From Treasure Island
Long John Silver is a dastardly pirate with a peg leg from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of high sea adventure, called Treasure Island.  He is the quartermaster of the ship and owns a parrot who sits on his shoulder. named “Captain Flint” (after the name of the captain).  You can see how Disney stole this idea when they filmed Pirates of the Caribbean and named the monkey, “Jack”.  Stevenson’s portrayal of Silver has greatly influenced the modern iconography of the pirate and what we usually look for when we think of one of these characters.  According to Stevenson’s letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his real-life friend William Henley, a writer and editor.   He wrote to his friend, Henley, after the book had been published, “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver…the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound [voice alone], was entirely taken from you“.  When Henley was 12 years old, he contracted tuberculosis of the bone which resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee.  As an interesting side note, William Henley’s daughter, Margaret Emma, had a speech impediment and was friends with another author on our list, James Barrie (see below).  She used to call him “fwendy-wendy” – from which, Barrie created the name and the character of Wendy Darling for his play, “Peter Pan”.

Peter Pan
One of the most beloved plays in the last 120 years is the story of the boy who didn’t want to grow up.  Written in 1904, Barrie – a Scottish playwright – the play, and later the book, is about a mischievous boy named Peter Pan who can fly and has adventures on the mystical island of Neverland.  Here he battles pirates and interacts with fairies, mermaids and Indians.  While Barrie never described Peter’s appearance in detail, even in the novel Peter and Wendy (1911), he decided to  leave his looks to the imagination of the reader and the interpretation of anyone adapting the character in the play.  In 1897, Barrie became friends with the Llewelyn Davies’ family which consisted of Arthur, his wife Sylvia, and their five boys.  It is from these boys, with whom Barrie was referred to as “Uncle Jim” that the stories are derived.  One of them, named Peter, is most certainly the name behind the play.  It is also thought that the other characters of Michael, Wendy, and John were taken from the family, as well.  Certainly, of the Davies’ boys, there was a Peter, Michael, and John.  Wendy could be attributed to William Henley’s daughter (see above).  Much has been speculated about Barrie’s relationships with children, although, the youngest of the Davies’ boys, Nico, always denied any wrongdoing on Barrie’s part.  However, Michael would later commit suicide by drowning with his male lover while at Oxford and Peter died by throwing himself in front of a train in 1960.

Kilgore Trout From The Books Of Kurt Vonnegut
Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by author Kurt Vonnegut.  Trout appears in several of Vonnegut’s books, in which he performs a variety of roles: he acts as a catalyst for the main characters in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Slaughterhouse-Five, while in others, such as Jailbird, and Timequake, Trout is an active character who is vital to the story.  Trout, who has supposedly written over 117 novels and over 2000 short stories, is usually described as an unappreciated science fiction writer whose works are used only as filler material in pornographic magazines with the fictional Jessi Palmer who turned out to be an actual girl. However, he does have at least three fans: Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim—both Vonnegut characters—have a near-complete collection of Trout’s work or have read most of his work; in Galápagos, Leon Trotsky Trout goes on leave in Thailand and meets an unnamed Swedish doctor who is a fan of Kilgore Trout. This doctor helps Leon desert the US Marine Corps and defect to Sweden, where he receives political asylum as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.  The character has no set background or time sequence, but appears the way Vonnegut wants him in whatever he is writing.  Some critics claim that the character of Kilgore Trout is actually Vonnegut, but the author claimed that the inspiration was actually a fictionalized version of author Theodore Sturgeon, Vonnegut’s colleague.  In 1957, Theodore Sturgeon moved to Truro, Massachusetts, where he befriended Vonnegut, then working as a salesman in a Saab dealership.  At the time, both were writing in the genre of science fiction.  By the time of Kilgore Trout’s first appearance (in 1965’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), both had moved to different cities, and Vonnegut had begun to be perceived as a mainstream author. The name was a transparent reference to the older writer (substituting “Kilgore” for “Theodore” and “Trout” for “Sturgeon”), but since the characterization was less than flattering (both Sturgeon and Trout were financially unsuccessful and seemingly slipping into obscurity), Vonnegut did not publicly state the connection, nor did Sturgeon encourage the comparison. It was not until after Sturgeon’s death in 1985 that Vonnegut explicitly acknowledged the matter, stating in a 1987 interview that “Yeah, it said so in his obituary in the [New York] Times. I was delighted that it said in the middle of it that he was the inspiration for the Kurt Vonnegut character of Kilgore Trout.”  And so it goes…

Professor James Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes described Professor Moriarty as the “Napoleon of Crime”, a criminal mastermind who was the arch-nemesis of the famed sleuth.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of the Sherlock Holmes books, however lifted that quote from a superintendent Robert Anderson, from Scotland Yard, who was referring to a real-life criminal, named Adam Worth.  Worth was an American mastermind who committed all sorts of crimes in all parts of the world.  He got his start by stealing the money the Union was paying for soldiers in the Civil War – several times over.  He then went onto robbery, burglary, and grand theft.  He had agents working for him all over Europe where he became sort of a Godfather of the criminal underground.  Whenever he was cornered, he seemed to slip through the law’s hands and escape to freedom somewhere else.  Using false names and disguises, Worth was able to carry on his criminal escapades for years until finally captured in Belgium where he stayed for a few years before being released.  His health was then bad, he was broke, and died a few years later in the U.S.
James Bond
Yes, that James Bond, the super spy from England, was actually a real person.   The character appeared in twelve novels and two short stories, by Ian Fleming (who also wrote “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang“).  Since Fleming’s death in 1964, the Bond character has been written into more books and movies by various writers.  The real James Bond was modeled partly after an American ornithologist (a bird scientist), named James Bond, who had written a book that Fleming was reading while vacationing in Jamaica.  However, while he took the name from a fellow bird-watcher, it is generally presumed that James Bond is a romanticised version of Ian Fleming, himself a jet-setting womaniser. Both Fleming and Bond attended the same schools, preferred the same foods (scrambled eggs, and coffee), maintained the same habits (drinking, smoking, and gambling), shared the same notions of the perfect woman in looks and style, and had similar naval career paths (both rising to the rank of naval Commander). They also shared similar height, hairstyle, and eye color.  Fleming…Ian Fleming. It just doesn’t have the same sound…