Novelists have often used public figures as models for their characters, sometimes thinly veiled, other times more disguised. The record-holding model in literature is probably Lady Ottoline Morrell, who was caricatured, often unkindly and unfairly, by D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and Alan Bennett, among others. Although she managed to withstand her unflattering caricatures with grace, others have not found it so easy. Arnold Schoenberg was so mortified by the character of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus that he accosted a mutual acquaintance of his and Mann’s in their local supermarket to protest that he never had syphilis.
Ottoline Morrell’s larger-than-life qualities—her six-foot stature, flamboyant apparel, amply stocked stable of lovers including Bertrand Russell and Augustus John, her high-powered salons, combined with her outspoken pacifism during two world wars and intense religiosity—define the essence of the literary model. Excess, outrageousness and notoriety offer much for an author to describe while also pondering a character’s inner life.
Marianne Faithfull has provided this kind of inspiration for Based on a True Story, Elizabeth Renzetti’s venture into fiction after a long, successful career in journalism. The singer and former paramour of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, whom Renzetti interviewed in 1994, is refigured as Augusta Price, née Anna Maria Ferragosto, a time-ravaged but still beautiful actress who squandered her early success through substance abuse, reckless licentiousness and the kind of prima donna behaviour that made her persona non grata with producers, directors and fellow cast members. After being expelled from yet another rehabilitation program, and while trying to secure a re-entry part on television, Price finds that she is more in demand as a memoirist-cum-self-help writer than as an actor.
When the forlorn journalist Frances Bleeker, a Californian seeking autonomy and adventure in London, interviews her for a newspaper profile, Price discovers the ghost writer and level head she needs. A screwball comedy of misadventures shared by the reluctant collaborators ensues. Together they travel to Los Angeles, where Augusta spectacularly bungles every opportunity, at the same time as she stalks her former partner and putative co-parent, Kenneth Deller, and her estranged son, Charles.
Manchester-born journalist Kenneth Deller knows he is a descendent of the morally compromised characters in Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novella, The Loved One, which depicts the British Hollywood colony’s attempt to capitalize on their accents while controlling their brand. “There are jobs that an Englishman just doesn’t take” is a resonant phrase that Augusta reads to Deller when she finds her old copy of Waugh in his possession. He is still besotted with her, and devoted to the son he cannot be certain is his, but his career as a journalist has left him in a similar place to Augusta, posing as a relationship maven under the name of Mr. Romance while working on a book that Augusta fears will reveal her maternal shortcomings.
It is around these maternal failings that the action revolves. The otherwise shameless and unrepentant diva is so aghast that Deller might reveal how remiss a mother she has been that she stops at nothing to get her hands on the manuscript. Charles was sent to boarding school at eight, after Deller found him lining up lines of laundry detergent to snort as he had seen his mother do with other powder. Charles has cut off communication with Augusta, whose only reaction is to feel unjustly neglected. She recalls her time with the newborn as unremitting torture: “Each day had a hundred hours in it, and in each of those hundred hours she’d been awake holding an egg in both hands.” She harbours no sentimental memories of mother-son bonding. When reminded by both Deller and Charles that she created the estrangement herself by forcing 16-year-old Charles to choose between her or his supposed father, she has neither a memory nor any remorse concerning the incident.
Coming face to face with her offspring and her failings creates no dramatic transformation, but it does initiate some minor twitches of concern in Augusta, although misdirected toward her loyal companion and co-author, Frances: “Augusta slid a hand onto Frances’s shoulder, patting awkwardly. A strand of dark hair had escaped from her ponytail, and Augusta had the sudden urge to tuck it in.” Renzetti’s ability to render these tiny, tender -gestures does not conflict with her even more impressive Waugh-like irony. The culminating moment, when Charles actually expresses filial concern for his mother, nearly kills Augusta, as it diverts her attention from the lethally bucking mechanical bull she is riding, hurtling her toward a literal and figurative hard landing.
While it was clear to anyone who knew her that Lady Ottoline Morrell was the person being depicted in their works, none of the writers publicly said so, which meant that readers could judge the literary creations without reference to a known person. By announcing that Marianne Faithfull inspired Augusta Price, Renzetti invites comparison. Doing so may enhance publicity for the book, but it does not enhance the reading experience, for two reasons. Renzetti does not really draw on the more specific and compelling aspects of Faithfull. Making Price an Italian immigrant’s daughter is bland compared to Faithfull’s fascinating descent from the Sacher-Masoch family who gave us, via Sigmund Freud, the term “masochism.” Situating Price in the world of stage and television rather than the rock scene excludes the vivid colour and drama of Faithfull’s raunchy, road-trip world. Also, Renzetti chooses not to portray the true darkness of Faithfull’s life, including the loss of custody of her child and periods of severe mental illness. Although she is not obligated to render Faithfull literally detail for detail, when she piques the reader’s interest with public comparisons to her she raises expectations that she does not fulfill.
Notwithstanding, Augusta Price stands wonderfully well on her own. With her unflagging gusto for her downward trajectory, and her blithe exploitation of all resources including everyone around her as well as her own physical endowments, Price is a refreshing and resilient character whose obnoxious narcissism is redeemed by her dim awareness that she needs to be a better person. Her eventual striving toward atonement is genuine and results in hard-earned self-understanding. Landing back in another “wellness retreat,” she admits to Frances that “I see all my failures behind me, like a trail of breadcrumbs” and advises her to “save … the kindest and most resourceful part (of yourself), for yourself.” If Oscar Wilde is right that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, then Augusta Price becomes Augusta Value.
Renzetti has been kinder to Faithfull than Lawrence et al. were to Morrell, possibly because her encounter with Faithfull was a brief professional one. But the gentle portraits of each of the characters in Based on a True Story suggest that Renzetti simply has a warm heart. If I were ever to find myself portrayed by a novelist, I would like it to be by her.
Robin Roger is a psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto, as well as a contributor to Musical Toronto and senior editor of Ars Medica.