I was scrabbling around trying to come up with a title for today’s blog, and realised I have absolutely no idea if there’s a technical term for a novel based on the life of a real person. The world of film has biopic, so biofic maybe? Anyway, whatever we choose to call them, they are the subject of today’s top five. Truth is stranger than fiction as the saying goes, and certainly some of the extraordinary lives that have made their way into novel form are as dramatic as any character born of imagination alone. I’m not a huge fan of straightforward biographies, but the artistic licence permitted to the novelist allows their subject to morph from a remote, lifeless figure into a thinking, feeling, tangible being, and that’s why I’m drawn to fiction of this type. Before I start my list then, a quick explanation of my self-imposed rules as to what was eligible for inclusion! All the novels here deal with the life story of one specific person; a story set in the Tudor court that happened to feature Henry VIII, for example, wouldn’t count. Apart from that distinction, anything goes: all human life is here.
- “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thompson – this is a bit of a tome, but worth every minute that you devote to it. It tells the tale of Darwin’s famous voyage on HMS Beagle; however, the real focus in terms of character isn’t the naturalist himself but Robert FitzRoy, the ship’s captain. In Darwin he finds a great friend, but ultimately stands to lose much more as his faith begins to be shaken by the revolutionary theories of his travelling companion. I loved the fact that the author chose to shine the spotlight on a real-life figure who has been somewhat forgotten compared to his much more famous friend.
- “The Quickening Maze” by Adam Foulds – the year is 1840, and his precarious mental state sees the poet John Clare incarcerated in an asylum. I knew nothing of Clare’s unfortunate life prior to reading this novel, and although the author freely admits that he took “a number of liberties” with actual events, this is still an incredibly arresting depiction of mental anguish and the way it was dealt with by Victorian society. Not the most uplifting of books, but undeniably haunting.
- “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier – if you fancy a book about a fiercely intelligent and determined woman fighting against the patriarchal establishment then this is for you! Mary Anning (for those of you who, like me, who haven’t previously heard of her) was a fossil collector whose discoveries rocked the scientific community in the nineteenth century. Despite the undeniable significance of her work, however, she was constantly opposed and excluded by the ranks of male scientists who refused to be challenged by any evidence that was put forward by a woman. You’ll find yourself willing her on all the way through.
- “Symphony” by Jude Morgan – I’m pretty sure this book has appeared in another of my top five lists, but it’s so good I’m putting it in another one! It charts the relationship between Berlioz and Harriet Smithson and I think it’s possibly one of the most authentic portrayals of love I’ve ever read. By the time you’ve followed the couple through years of joy, anguish, passion and disappointments, you feel as if you know them intimately.
- “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” by Robert Hough – this is one of my all-time favourite novels, but it wasn’t until I’d got to the end and read the author’s note that I realised Mabel Stark was a real woman. As a performer in a succession of travelling circuses you might expect her lifestyle to be on the eccentric side, but hers was so bizarre it seems as fantastical as the illusion of the circus itself. There’s an underlying sadness to her story though; she was a woman for whom the steady, intimate relationships that most of us crave simply weren’t possible. The tigers that she trained remained the true loves of her life until the very end.
As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts – which novels of this sort have you enjoyed?