While England Sleeps

Daniel Francis

American novelist David Leavitt had a legal and literary sensation on his hands when his novel While England Sleeps was published last winter. Apparently Leavitt borrowed heavily from the memoirs of Stephen Spender, the aging English poet, in writing up the story of a love affair between an upper-middle-class writer and a subway worker in pre-war London. Spender threatened legal action and the publisher withdrew the book. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a copy of the offending volume in the local library. Being Canadian, my first response was to think: surely this is against some law. Shouldn't I rush to the librarian and have the book removed? Managing to repress my better self, I checked the book out instead, and stole home to read what Stephen Spender would rather I did not. Aside from the sex, which is explicit and frequent, While England Sleeps proved to be a giant bore, and the questions raised by it, publication and suppression—in what sense do we own copyright to our own lives? What is the morality of "fictionalizing" real people?—are far more compelling than the text which occasioned them. If Stephen Spender had just kept mum, I don't think anyone would have noticed.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at


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