One of the recurring motifs on Strange Flowers is the phenomenon of real-life individuals appearing in works of fiction, in varying levels of disguise. There are the obvious examples: Robert de Montesquiou‘s afterlife in the novels of Proust and Huysmans, Ganna Walska‘s rebirth as Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, the numerous Bright Young Things who took Brideshead in camouflage. Or of course yesterday’s subject Marie Menken, captured by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and so magnificently ventriloquised by Elizabeth Taylor when the play became a film. Over the months and years my fascination with these characters has only grown as I’ve discovered more and more examples. What interests me above all is the idea that there are people so extraordinary that, often in their own lifetimes, they slip the bonds of drear existence and drift into artifice.
You’ll find many of these parallel existences under the category ‘Stranger than fiction‘. I’m going to look more closely at this idea in a feature called ‘Doubles’, holding up the original and the model, looking at their similarities and differences and the process by which flesh-and-blood becomes embedded in fiction. Of course this isn’t an exact science. Fiction is fiction and writers inevitably pick and choose attributes from their models, or construct a composite based on two or more people, and sometimes it is a matter of dispute whether there’s a connection at all. Not every roman comes with a clef but sorting the fact from the fiction and the fiction from the biography is – for me at least – a pursuit of almost inexhaustible fascination.
First up tomorrow is a man who himself often dressed his associates in fictional drag: Ronald Firbank.