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Making The Fictional Real

A photo of Chatsworth House

This photograph was taken by Gareth Williams.

Alison O’Toole, from The Toast, wrote an excellent piece about literary pilgrimages that included as a matter of course the way we apply reality to the books we read. These literary pilgrimages were journeys to places that inspired authors to write.

It’s a compulsion of sorts, I think, to provide a reality to fiction, most especially the books we love (we’d probably rather emphasis the unreality of those we dislike). Not only does it help us when it comes to imagining settings and characters, I’d say there’s a subconscious element that deals with the way we want it to be real. This element includes the way it almost needs to be real – we incorporate the fictional into general culture enough that a factual basis is useful. The same can be said of the way we present things – concepts, people. If asked, “Who is this Mr Darcy you reference?”, few would say, “Oh, he’s just this character from this old book”. No, it’s more likely we’d explain that Mr Darcy is a character in Pride And Prejudice (the title important itself), that’s about the lives of five young women, and so on. We’d also likely describe Darcy’s character, too, and what he looks like… or at least what Colin Firth looks like drenched in water. In this way we make Darcy real because he kind of is; the idea of him, what we mean when we reference him, is entrenched. And so we apply the fictional to our world, our culture, in such a way that makes it inherent to it.

To reference Mr Darcy again, with all the ideas of richness that accompany him, if we call Chatsworth House Pemberley (albeit we’re drifting into film now) no one would say we were wrong, indeed you’d probably be thought a bit snobbish if you said it. (This reminds me of my visit to Highclere Castle: I asked a staff member about the portrait of Charles I and felt very uncomfortable because despite the validity of my question, it had nothing to do with Downton Abbey.)

We make the fictional real because we love it. We love it enough we wish it were real and we like to share with others. It’s part of what makes reading a social activity. We make the fictional real because it has affected us; we glorify it, we set it on a bit of a pedestal. And because we all talk about it enough it makes sense to make it real.

We can tell how big a mark something has made by how well-known the reference is. I’d say Mr Darcy rarely needs extra information – most people know what the name represents, at the very least, and they know he’s a fictional character. Brontë’s Mr Rochester? Perhaps not so much. He might need a qualifier: ‘Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre‘, not because Brontë is less known, more due to the popularity of adaptations.

I think it’s a fascinating concept, this factualisation, if you will, and unlike some things that can be laughed away – imaginary friends, for example – literature is accepted by all in this way.

I’ve droned on about Darcy – what other characters can you think of who’ve been applied to reality in this way? Are there any characters/books that have impacted you enough you’ve incorporated them into your vocabulary?


Literary Feline

September 22, 2015, 4:13 pm

What a great post! Sherlock Holmes, comes to mind. I knew who he was long before I’d ever read one of Doyle’s books (or seen a movie featuring the character).

I randomly asked a couple of my coworkers if they knew who Mr. Darcy was and they gave me blank looks. That was kind of disappointing, but I suppose not surprising given their lack of interest in literature.


September 30, 2015, 12:19 pm

“We make the fictional real because we love it. We love it enough we wish it were real and we like to share with others.”

This is so true! I definitely do this when I visit somewhere literary: ‘oh this is where so and so would have sat’. It’s a testitment to the authors that they write characters that to us seem so real. Elena Greco is currently a character I am convinced I could meet if I went to Naples.

As for characters that have ingrained themselves into my vocab, I’d say ‘you know nothing, Jon Snow’ is probably one of those situations.



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