April 21st, 2009
I’ve noticed an interesting trend that is hardly new, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it formally defined in library literature. I’m going to call it Classics With a Twist. It’s a genre of fiction that starts with a classic work of fiction then the author does one of three things to it:
1. Re-writes the story from a different character’s point of view.
2. Writes a sequel.
3. Re-writes the story in a modern setting with modern characters.
Quite by accident, I recently read three books that were Classics With a Twist. The first was Rhett Butler’s People, Donald McCaig’s authorized companion to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. I have to make a disclaimer - I’m an unabashed GWTW fan, even though Scarlett is as unlikeable as a heroine can get and it paints the unrealistic picture of happy slaves ruled by kindly masters. In Rhett Butler’s People we finally get to hear Rhett’s side of the story and we learn of the forces that molded him as a young man. Most of the book is a retelling of the classic through Rhett’s eyes, though it does take it a step further into the years after the war. Overall, it is an enjoyable tale, especially if you’re dying to know what happens next to Scarlett and Rhett, but McCaig brought a lot of modern sensibilities to the story and sometimes goes too far in making things politically correct. McCaig also made Scarlett somewhat sweeter than she is in the original which I didn’t mind because we are seeing her through Rhett’s eyes and his love for her overlooks her flaws. He also made Melanie Wilkes far more coarse, which I did mind. For example, Melanie reveals details of her intimate relationships with Ashley in a letter to a friend which felt completely out of character. In another scene, Melanie instructs Belle Watling how to be a lady, which is something Melanie never had to think about - being a lady was as natural as breathing. Scarlett, on the other hand, could have easily had that conversation because she was all about calculated appearances. If you simply can’t get enough of GWTW, you might also try The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall who tells the story through the eyes of Cynara, a slave. Try also Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, a rather far-fetched sequel which has Scarlett going to Ireland after the war and meeting her father’s relatives.
The next Classic With a Twist is The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough. This sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice takes place seventeen years after that novel ends where we find the bookish, priggish younger sister Mary still a spinster after caring for the Bennet girls’ mother for all these years. Mary idolizes Argus, which is the pseudonym of an exposé writing newspaper columnist who loves to heckle Parliament. In honor of him, she takes her small inheritance and decides to write a book about the way industry exploits the poor. Many misadventures befall her and several men fall in love with her. If you are a thoroughly addicted Janeite, I can nearly guarantee that you will hate this book - Darcy is a power-hungry control freak, Elizabeth a shrew and Lydia a prostitute and a drunk. Mary is charmingly naive and still has a proclivity for worthy causes. However, if you’re looking for a rollicking romance novel with all sorts of improbable situations (including a subterranean cult), you’ll love this book. Jane Austen’s works are very popular starting points for Classics With a Twist. If you want sequels or alternate viewpoints, try Duty and Desire by Pamela Aidan, Mansfield Revisited or Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken. If you want modern retellings, try First Impressions by Debra White Smith or Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding. For a really complete listing of all Jane Austen companion works visit www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austseql.html.
The third Classic With a Twist is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, a modern retelling of Hamlet set in Wisconsin rather than Elsinore and featuring a doggy Ophelia in the guise of Almondine. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll find this to be a pretty direct retelling, complete with the ghost of Edgar’s father, a romance between his uncle and mother and the disasterous outcome of trying to prove his uncle is a murderer. The prose in this book is lovely, but I’ve found that people either really love it or absolutely hate it - there’s no middle ground. If you are generally a fan of Oprah’s book club picks, then it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll love this one, too.
Shakespeare is probably the most frequently used author in the Classics With a Twist category. For retellings from different characters try: Caliban’s Hour by Tad Williams; Ophelia by Lisa M. Klein; or Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. For modern takes try Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray; Serenissima by Erica Jong; Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney or Much Ado About Murder edited by Anne Perry.
There are hundreds more of these types of books. If you have a favorite classic, come in the Library and we’ll try to find some related stories. Alternately, check this discussion on literary retellings: www.romantictimes.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=9607.
Entry Filed under: Book Talk