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Based on a true story—nonfiction texts that inspired iconic works of fiction

How did Shelley get to grips with the anatomy of Frankenstein’s monster? Or where did Conan Doyle learn the legal side of Sherlock Holmes?
by The Blinkist Team | Sep 5 2018

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the original publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have created an online resource revealing the nonfiction texts that were essential influences in the writing of iconic works of fiction.

Working with societies, biographers, and academics dedicated to celebrated authors, this online tool is for readers to understand the non-fiction inspiration for their favourite literary masterpieces.

From the real-life equivalent of the book that protagonist Winston finds in 1984, to the real-life account of slavery on which Harriet Beecher-Stowe built Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the project celebrates the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, and further sheds light on these global masterpieces.

As well as this, we have written a number of ‘books-in-blinks’ for a selection of these inspirational texts – so that you can digest the books in short, commute-friendly times.

The nonfiction texts behind iconic works of fiction

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Men, by Mary Wollstonecraft (1790)
  • An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, by William Godwin (1793)
  • A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, by Sir Humphry Davy (1802)

Cited as primary sources by Shelley biographer, Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson on the relationship between the scientific theory of Davy and Frankenstein’s creation of the monster:

“Mary Shelley was proud to be the daughter of two radically innovative thinkers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. As a teenager she met Sir Humphrey Davy, the most influential research chemist of her day, who was a family friend. Her imagination may also have been kindled by her attendance at newly-popular public lectures about science, and rumours of demonstrations of ‘galvanism’ which – while based on incorrect science – successfully passed an electric current through the corpses of animals and even people, causing them to move.”

Tom Anderson, Head of English Content at Blinkist on how the feminist subtext of Frankenstein inspired by Shelley’s Mother:

“Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley due to complications and poor medical care, which had a profound effect on how Shelley developed as a person and a writer. The Frankenstein author went on to live her Mother’s legacy, by pursuing studies of science and creating a world in her novel with a strong feminist thread throughout. Frankenstein’s monster being a creation without a mother, or the guiding hand of femininity, shows Wollstonecraft’s legacy within Shelley’s work.”


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

  • The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, by Josiah Henson (1849)
  • The narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Zarle Williams (1845)

Cited as primary sources by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society

Dr. LuElla D’Amico, of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society, on how the author drew on recently-published accounts of slavery to build the character of Uncle Tom:

“The heroic and devoted life of Josiah Henson, who Stowe claimed to base the character of Tom upon. Henson, who was betrayed by his master and sold after being promised freedom for his unparalleled obedience, nursed his master’s nephew back to health while en route to a slave auction where he was to be sold in New Orleans. Henson carried the young man back to his uncle, even though he could’ve easily escaped. Josiah’s master still refused to grant him his freedom, and he later walked 600 miles to Canada and created a haven for escaped slaves in an area called Dawn.  This settlement became known as the last stop in the Underground railroad.”


A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962)

    • Getting Along in Russian, by Mario Pei (1959)
    • Teach Yourself Russian, by Maximillian Fourman (1943)
    • Brave New World Revisited, by Aldous Huxley (1958)
    • Science and Human Behavior, by B. F. Skinner (1951)

Cited as primary sources by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Andrew Biswell, of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, on how influential psychologist Skinner proved to be a contrast point for Burgess:

A Clockwork Orange articulates a fundamental disagreement between Burgess and the psychologist B.F. Skinner, author of Walden Two (a utopian novel) and Science and Human Behavior, in which Skinner had argued that culture, environment and individual freedom of choice were insignificant factors when it came to determining personality. Burgess, who had been raised a Catholic and believed in the primacy of free will, rejected what he saw as the crude determinism of Skinner’s psychology. The idea that individuals should choose their own destiny is fundamental to the novel’s thinking about the meaning of freedom. As the prison chaplain says in part two of A Clockwork Orange, ‘When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.’”


1984, by George Orwell (1949)

    • The Managerial Revolution, by James Burnham (1941)
    • Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction, by Halford Mackinder (1919)

Cited as primary sources by the George Orwell Society

Les Hurst, of the George Orwell Society, on the real book which became the revolutionary banned text also known simply as “the book” in 1984:

“Burnham’s Managerial Revolution underlies the ‘book within the book’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Orwell gave the title The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical CollectivismCome the Second World War the Allies wanted to know about their enemies and the theories that drove them – thus Penguin Books found a big demand when they published paperback copies of both The Managerial Revolution and Democratic Ideals and Reality. Orwell did not have to believe either, but they helped provide a skeleton for his final novel.”


Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens (1839)

  • The State of the Poor, by Frederick Eden (1797)
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (1776)

Cited as primary sources by the Dickens Society 

David Paroissen, of the Dickens Society, on how Dickens drew on the reality of modern day London, and ancient Rome, for Oliver Twist:

“These principal ‘real’ or external focal points shape the fictional (or invented) world of Oliver Twist: the harsh realities of urban, industrialized London, the challenge of finding a national solution to poverty, and the extent of crime, violence and prostitution in the metropolis.”

Tom Anderson, Head of English Content at Blinkist, on how the fability of Rome shaped also shaped the world of Oliver Twist:

“It’s surprising to learn that the brutish world inhabited by Dickensian characters has its origins in the Roman Empire. Elements of Oliver Twist, such as the wealth inequality, relationships between children and adults, and general sense of lawlessness, could well be as much reflections of Ancient Roman society as his own Victorian experiences. When asked what the Romans did for us, we can now add Oliver Twist to their list of accolades.”


War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1867)

    • The World as Will and Representation, by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
    • History of the Consulate and the Empire of France under Napoleon, by Adolphe Thiers (1845)
    • History of the Campaign in France, in the year 1814 (1839)

Cited as primary sources by the Tolstoy Commons

Ani Kokobobo, of the Tolstoy Commons, on how the Russian writer railed against traditional history books with War and Peace:  

“Both the ‘History Of’ texts were used by Tolstoy to criticise the Pro-Napoleonic fashion in which history was written up to that point.”

Tom Anderson, Head of English Content at Blinkist, on Tolstoy’s fanatical research in preparation to writing:

“There had been other novels on the Napoleonic Wars, but Tolstoy was the first to tell the story of the French invasion of Russia. The Russian writer undertook exhaustive research so that his fiction was planted firmly in the reality of the war. As well as the official histories from both Russia and France, which were often overly-patriotic retellings, Tolstoy also read the memoirs of Russian officers and ambassadors and spoke to elderly relatives of their personal memories of the time, in order to develop characters with such depth.”


The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1895)

  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (1859)
  • Principles of Geology, by Charles Lyell (1830)
  • The Martyrdom of Man, by William Winwood Reade (1872)

Cited as primary sources by the H.G. Wells Society

Simon James, of the H.G. Wells Society, on how early theories of evolution shaped the Eloi and Morlocks in Wells’ science fiction masterpiece:

“Principles of Geology marks the first suggestion that the world is billions of years old. Without Lyell, there is no Darwin.”


Live and Let Die (1954), Moonraker (1955), and You Only Live Twice (1964) by Ian Fleming

  • The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1950)
  • Scarne on Cards, by John Scarne (1949)
  • The American Black Chamber, by Herbert O. Yardley (1930)

Cited as primary sources by Literary 007

Literary 007 Editor, on how Bond relies on works of nonfiction as heavily as his creator does:

“If Birds of the West Indies is Fleming’s bible, Scarne of Cards might well be Bond’s. He consults it before observing Hugo Drax’s bridge game in Moonraker, and using the instructions given in the manual to practice card dealing and sharping techniques. Intriguingly, Bond requires a moment’s search to find the book within his ‘book-lined sitting-room’, confirming that Bond, like his creator, is also a bibliophile.”


Beloved, by Toni Morrison (1988)

    • The narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Zarle Williams (1845)
    • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861)

Cited as primary sources by Morrison biographer, Stephanie Li

Stephanie Li, on an article related to a court case which inspired her attempts to describe the traumas of slavery that could not be expressed in slave narratives:

“Morrison was initially inspired by a case involving Margaret Garner which she saw in a 1856 newspaper. Garner became a cause celebre in the 19th century because of the scandal generated by her murder of her infant daughter. A controversy ensued involving if a slave could be tried for murder since as property a slave is not considered human. We wouldn’t for example hold a dog accountable for the death of another animal but then how would it be possible to hold Garner accountable for her actions, or more specifically how could she be punished? Abolitionists seized on this absurd discussion as evidence of the manifest injustice of slavery.”


Valley of Fear (1915) and The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922), by Arthur Conan Doyle

    • Criminal Investigations, a practical textbook for magistrates, police officers and lawyers, by Hans Gross (1893)
    • The Molly Maguires and the detectives, by Allan Pinkerton (1877)

Cited as primary sources by The Sherlock Holmes Society of London

Tom Anderson, Head of English Content at Blinkist, comments:

“The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was one of the earliest fully-functioning agencies of its type. It’s role was so prominent, that Abraham Lincoln hired its agents as his personal security detail during the Civil War. It’s amazing to see how Pinkerton’s real-life clue analysis, subterfuge, and strategy helped shape the most famous detective franchise in history.

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