What happens when a novelist writes a novel based on a real life story but changes the main character and the arc of her life?
• Artist-Author Mary Hallock Foote and her Angle of Repose (Casey Bush, Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, 2003). "The same year that Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize, Foote's autobiography, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West was published by the Huntington Library at the urging of Foote's descendents who objected to the great liberties that Stegner took in telling her story. Straddling fact and fiction, Angle of Repose was also met with charges of plagiarism in academic circles."
• A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (by Mary Hallock Foote, edited by Rodman W. Paul)
• Angle of Repose, the novel by Wallace Stegner
• ‘The Ways of Fiction Are Devious Indeed’ (Sands Hall, Alta Online, 4-4-22) Finding current relevancy—and outrage—in the accusations of plagiarism that have long haunted a classic of the West: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. "Yet in the end, it wasn't that Stegner copied so much, verbatim, that incensed me. Nor that, in creating the Wards, he followed so precisely—for 523 of the novel's 569 pages—the trajectory of the Footes' lives. It was that, in the process, he altered Mary's character. Susan emerges as a griping, entitled, discontented 1950s housewife, nothing like the adventurous, deeply intelligent, resilient woman on whom she was modeled....Stegner didn't physically assault Mary Foote, but he abused her—her life, her writing, and, as it turned out, her reputation. And he got away with it because he was a man." Having started with material from Mary Foote's life, Stegner the novelist adds "adultery, infanticide, a destroyed marriage" and "dramatically alters the climax of that life, and, in the process, her entire character."
Hall continues: "In choosing to climax the story of the Wards in a romantic tryst gone terribly wrong, Stegner not only "warped" the Footes' story; he missed the opportunity to unfold the remarkable final act of their lives." And Hall writes of the real happy ending to the family's story, concluding: "We have a word for the theft of writing; we do not have one for a stolen life."
• A classic, or a fraud? (Philip L. Fradkin, LA Times, 2-3-08) Plagiarism allegations aimed at Wallace Stegner's 'Angle of Repose' won't be put to rest. "Stegner used the private letters of Mary Hallock Foote and additional portions of her unpublished memoir intact, edited or combined with invented material for the basic structure of his narrative. He included page-long passages and entire paragraphs unaltered, slightly changed or invented, and borrowed specific details of her life for his most memorable character, Susan Burling Ward...
"Stegner had permission to use the material and ... he acknowledged its use, [although he] altered Foote's life to fit his needs for a multidimensional novel of the American West." He told the family he would alter the story, mixing fiction with fact, but the novel implies a romantic liaison that didn't happen in real life, which the family found objectionable. In the introduction to a paperback edition of the novel issued in 2001, Jackson J. Benson, a Stegner biographer, writes about this controversy. This article is worth reading if you're planning to base a novel on a true story.
• List of fake memoirs and journals (Wikipedia) Another angle on the same theme.