Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Muse as Moloch - Cathy Butler

“I met Peter Pan when I was young,” my mother confided to me the other day.

On further enquiry it turned out that she was referring to the publisher Peter Davies, who had published a memoir she’d been hired to ghost-write as a young woman (yes, that kind of thing happened in the 1940s too). Earlier in the century, as Peter Llewelyn-Davies, he had been the middle of the five Llewelyn-Davies brothers who collectively inspired J. M . Barrie’s most famous creation. (“I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,” Barrie later wrote.) Perhaps because of the name, however, Peter Davies was particularly dogged by the association in the public mind, and found it oppressive. Even when he eventually committed suicide in 1960 by throwing himself in front of a train, the newspapers referred to him as “Peter Pan”.

There is a tragic roll-call of classic children’s books whose authors’ children (adoptive in Barrie’s case) led blighted or violently foreshortened lives. Some forty years before Peter Davies’s death his younger brother Michael – another of the “five” – died by drowning, possibly in a suicide pact, aged just twenty. Alastair Grahame, for whom his father Kenneth wrote The Wind in the Willows, was even younger when he lay down on a railway track to await the train that would decapitate him. The role (if any) of the books in those deaths will never be known, but there is no doubt that Christopher Milne found his immortalization as Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh a burden through much of his life, recording his resentment that A. A. Milne “had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”

I was reminded of these unhappy cases a few days ago, when I heard John Wilson interview Hanif Kureishi on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. Wilson mentioned that Kureishi had sometimes drawn on his own family for inspiration in his novels, not least in The Buddha of Suburbia, a book that caused Kureishi’s father to feel (by his sister’s account) that “Hanif had robbed him of his dignity.” The tone of hurt betrayal is strikingly similar to Milne’s, but Kureishi Senior was at least an adult and to that extent better able to defend himself. What of Kureishi’s children?

JW: How do your sons feel about it? There are sketches here, we get a sense of who they are in a couple of these stories. Do they mind being written about?

HK: I would advise them to keep out of a writer’s way if you don’t want to be in a book.

JW: That’s pretty hard when the writer is their own dad!

HK: That’s tough. I mean, that’s something that they have to live with. You’d have to ask them about it. Writers are rather merciless. You see it with painters too. There’s something really ruthless about a real artist. Virtue is the worst quality in any artist.

Personally I find the implication that artists – sorry, real artists – somehow get a pass when it comes to treating people decently rather contemptible, and doubly so in the case of vulnerable people whom they have a particular duty to protect. On the other hand, it’s true that writers tend to pick up material from all over the place, magpie-fashion, and the people whom they know best and see most are unlikely to be exempt. Cyril Connolly famously asserted that “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” but I’m sure some children’s authors especially have looked at that pram and thought, however involuntarily: “Source material!” Most parents feel a mixture of pride and regret at seeing their children grow up, but children’s writers are likely to feel in addition a slight panic at being cut off from a free source of information about teenage slang and preoccupations. This does not put them in the same bracket as Kureishi, and for the record I should make clear that many children of writers have, with professional help, been successfully integrated into mainstream society and gone on to lead happy and fulfilled lives. But still, but still, how do you deal with that omniverous writerly appetite when it comes to the ones you love? Are there ground rules? No-go areas? What’s your way of squaring the family circle?


Susan Price said...

Another reason to be glad I don't have children!
I have backed off from putting too close a portrait of relatives into my books. I just couldn't face the post-mortems.
But there are portraits of real people in my books - ones I don't think the original would recognise.
You never know who's going to drift into your writing either, or how they're going to turn out. There are sympathetic portraits in my work of people who I think I have good reason to be spiteful about - it just didn't work out like that in the writing.
You don't always know what you're doing. My father, after reading one of my books, asked, "What made you base Y on X?" - It wasn't until he asked that I realised that Y was, indeed, firmly based on X.

Catherine Butler said...

Diana Wynne Jones put her mother into many of her books, always in unflattering guises, but her mother never recognized herself - or never let on if she did. "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own," said Swift, and perhaps the same is true with fiction - at least for some.

Penny Dolan said...

It must do strange things to a child's sense of themselves to find their life & "person" is being used - exploited even? - by someone they trusted, but it's also possible that these adults & their relationships were badly flawed anyway! Maybe it feels as if your parent prefers the child in their head - remember, all that writing time spent "with them"! - to you, the real bothersome one? And also that the dramatising tricks of fiction writing only emphasise how very much less YOU are than the child on the page - especially if you get sent away to boarding school? Sad. How did the Swallows & Amazons children turn out in adult life? Is it worse as a child if you aren't in the books? I'm not sure Enid Blyton's girls enjoyed sharing their lives with her fictional happy gangs of children.

But I'm sure many writers manage to protect their children, especially now, and there is a special delight in being close to children and seeing their worlds.

This reminds me that there's a John Irving book about a writer's child grown up & writing, isn't there? The fictional picture book was even published. Probably a digression.

Nick Green said...

Personally I find that children have a catastrophic effect on my ability to find time to write, rather than the writing having a catastrophic effect on them.

With writing perhaps comes a melancholy temperament for which writing is a release. If a child inherits the temperament but not the writing drive, perhaps there lies a possible source of the trouble.

ethelmay said...

From "The Storyteller:
Fact, fiction, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle," by Cynthia Zarin.

"Charlotte paused. “One thing I respect about Gran is that she’s seamless. She is able to put many complicated things together and make them whole, but she wasn’t able to do that with Vicky, or with Charles Wallace, ultimately, or, of course, with Bion, who to her was a combination of Charles Wallace and Rob Austin. She will not admit he died of alcoholism. She will not budge, and she will not talk about it. Bion loathed and detested the Austins.”

"Bion Franklin, who wanted to be a writer, lived for almost all his adult life at Crosswicks with his wife, Laurie, a doctor. According to the family, he is the person for whom L’Engle’s insistence on blurring fiction and reality had the most disastrous consequences. L’Engle’s former agent, Theron Raines, who met Bion when he was four or five, remembers him as beautiful and sweet. Everyone in L’Engle’s family is large—they’re big-boned people—but in the snapshots taken of Bion in the years before he died, he is beyond big, or just heavy: he looks smeared. “It’s hard,” Maria Rooney said, “to be the magic child.” "

Emma Barnes said...

On a more cheerful note, I enjoyed reading the chapter in one of Gerald Durrell's later books where his siblings reflect (or perhaps complain loudly is more accurate) about being written about in the hugely popular "My Family and Other Animals". As I recall, Larry objected to the "grotesque Dickensian caricature" and Margot to the fact that people kept coming up to her and asking "which other animal are you?" They then forbade Gerald to write any more about them - which of course, he promptly did.

Come to think of it though, they would all have been adults by the time the book was published, so probably a less undermining experience.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I had a teacher who had known Christopher Milne in his later years, as a conservationist, trying to save the forest on which the Hundred Acre Wood was based. It must have made him cringe as a child, with schoolmates laughing about "Christopher Robin is saying his prayers..." But he survived it, yes? :-)

It's never easy for the children of writers, even if they're not written into books. And I've heard of a TV actor's child whose schoolmates laughed at her because of the comic relief role her father was playing. (Though that had a happy ending - someone wrote an episode in which her father's character got to be brave and clever)

I once worked a nephew and niece into a chapter book and they were thrilled. Unfortunately, the publisher changed the boy's name, much to his disappointment.

Ven n/a said...

I've always wondered what Edith Nesbit's children made of the interesting, but by and large conventional, families in her books as opposed to their own decidedly unconventional household.

Ven n/a said...

Oh, I've just remembered a personal data point. I met one of Phillipa Pearce's nephews who had inspired Minnow on the Say. He was an unpublished writer, very bitter about his Aunt's failure to promote or encourage him.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

WOW this is so interesting! So much I didn't know about the unhappy endings of writers' children - I hope mine don't end up the same way! Seriously though, I do draw on my own family, sometimes with unhappy results - my brother once didn't talk to me for a year when he (mistakenly, as it turned out) believed that I had based a thoroughly unlikeable character on him (the confusion was that I'd used a small anecdote from his childhood for my character, and by extension my brother then thought that all the evil things that I was attributing were somehow to do with him!) Another time a work colleague took umbrage because I "used her name" - she had an unusual name, and I mentioned that I would like to call my heroine that, but then when she read it she flew into a rage because she didn't like some of the things that character had done. It made for quite an uncomfortable work scenario for some time, so when another friend asked if I could write a character based on her, I said no!! And disappointed her a lot so it's lose-lose in my book!