Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels retelling other literary works

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girlThose who read my blog regularly will guess what inspired this post – Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review), which is her response to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four fat Dutchmen” (my review). It got me thinking about how many other Australian novelists have done this sort of thing …

However, when you start researching this topic, my what a rabbit-hole you find! Firstly, what do you search under? Do you use words like “tribute” or “homage”. Well, no, because I wasn’t necessarily seeking novels which celebrate the original in that positive sense. Other search terms I tried were “responding to” (but even though I entered “novels responding to novels”, I mostly got hits about how readers respond to literature), “retelling”, “reworking”, and “riffing”. All these retrieved a variety of hits that contributed something, although when I added the term “Australian” into the mix, the results petered out somewhat. I also scouted around Wikipedia thinking surely there was something there to help me. I found various “list” pages, such as List of modernized adaptations of old literature and List of books based on works, but these were limited in their value, partly because they weren’t very comprehensive. However, during my Wikipedia travels, I did find a new term which is pretty perfect, I think, Parallel novels. One of the sources given for this article was from the West Milford Township Library, which defines the parallel novel:

A parallel novel owes its basic structure to a work by a different author. It can borrow a character and fill in his story, mirror an “old” plot or blend the characters of one book with those of another.

There is also, of course, the term “fan-fiction” but it’s somewhat tangential to what I was looking for – and is, to my mind, a separate group, albeit with some overlapping.

So, what was I looking for? Something more one-off, like, say, Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip (Great expectations), Jane Smiley’s One thousand acres (King Lear), Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), or Margaret Atwood’s The penelopiad (Homer’s Odyssey) (my review), all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. In other words, I wasn’t looking for novelists who had jumped on the bandwagon of a famous name (like Jane Austen, for example) or who wanted to continue a story they loved just because they loved the story or its characters. No, I was looking for novelists who wanted to explore a story from a different angle, often with some political or philosophical intent, though not necessarily so. There is, of course, a fine line in all this, and I certainly don’t want to offend authors who engage in the more popular style of “retellings”. After all, they’ve written a novel, which is more than I’ve done!

A few Australian parallel novels

I have read all the (few) books I list below, but some before blogging. If there’s a link on the book title, it’s to my review.

Geraldine Brooks’ March (Louisa May Alcott’s Little women): Brooks answers the question of what was the sisters’ father, Mr March, doing while he was away from home at the Civil War? It enabled Brooks, who is married to Civil War tragic Horowitz, to look at the Civil War from the point of view of an idealistic minister. He confronts the cruelty of war, not to mention his own failings, and learns that there are no simple answers to the rights and wrongs of war.

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (Charles Dickens’ Great expectations): As Brooks does in March, Carey fills in the story of a largely absent character in the original, the convict Magwitch. By having him return from the penal colony as a successful man, Carey forces readers to question issues like class, success and the power of money.

David Malouf Ransom

UK edition cover

David Malouf’s Ransom (section of the Iliad Books 22-24): Now, I have to admit that while I loved this book because Malouf writes so beautifully and so compassionately, I did wonder a little why he decided to write it. This is because, unlike the previous two books I’ve listed, he does not, as far as I can tell, retell the story in any major way, though he does flesh it out more, and in so doing, I suppose, he gives it a new slant. He also introduces a new character, Somax the cart driver, who provides an opportunity for Malouf to further develop Priam’s character. In the end, I decided that the book is about daring to dream – regardless of whether you are successful or not – and about the power (importance) of stories.

Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (W. Somerset Maugham’s “The four fat Dutchmen”): As I wrote in my very recent review, Riwoe tells the story of the Maugham’s nameless, mistreated Malay girl, from the girl’s perspective. Although Riwoe tells her story third person – as against Maugham’s observational first person narrator – she gets into Mina’s head and creates in her a lively, resilient but ultimately naive and, more importantly, powerless young woman who is no match for the men who control the colonial and traditional worlds in which she lives.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Barbados to Mansfield ParkRoslyn Russell’s Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park): Russell’s book falls to some degree in the fan-fiction category, but it also works as parallel literature because it picks up the story of the disgraced Maria Bertram and imagines what might have happened to her. Could she redeem herself? Russell uses Maria as an excuse to explore the slavery issue, which is tantalisingly referred to in Mansfield Park but not explored. It’s a point of ongoing (some might say endless) fascination for readers and critics of this intriguing Austen novel!

There is a question germane to all this, which is whether you need to have read the original before you read the retelling. I’d argue that the work must stand on its own, as I think the above novels do. Knowing the original should surely enhance the read – besides that little fillip of pride when you recognise an allusion! – but it shouldn’t make the read.

What do you think? And, while we’re at it, are you interested in parallel novels? If you are, I’d love to hear your favourites.

35 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels retelling other literary works

  1. That’s a new term on me. I have to admit I’m not a fan of parallel novels because I fear they won’t work as a stand-alone (ie you have to have read the original book to “get” the one inspired by it) but perhaps I’m wrong and just need to get over that prejudice.

  2. Kate Forsyth retells fairytales in modern times – does that count? The ones I have read are The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of The Beauty and The Beast, and Bitter Greens, a retelling of Rapunzel.

    • It does I think, Sharkell, though I decided that fairy stories are something a little different. I nearly included Danielle Woods Mothers Grim but decided not to go down the fairy story path. I must read her one day.

  3. There’s Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre) but I’m with Kim, I’d like novelists to write their own novels, not piggyback off (and potentially ruin) the ideas of others…

    • Yes, and I mentioned Rhys of course in my post. She’s the obvious one I think for many of us. Generally I agree with you, Lisa, unless I see a strong reason for retelling, like Rhys’ novel, and Riwoe’s. Sometimes readers complain that past writers have got things wrong and these “responses” can look at a story from more modern eyes, letting the original stand but critiquing it too. That was one of my uncertainties about Malouf’s Ransom, but I think he does do the story service if only to bring the story to modern eyes who may not read the original and to give it the human focus that he does to ensure we see the relevance.

  4. I like parallel novels. One of my favourites is Wild Island by Jennifer Livett which links early settlement on Van Diemens Land to Jane Eyre. I thought it was very well done. There is a review for it on my blog if you’d like the link (didn’t want to just pop it here automatically).

  5. Just wondering if you are familiar with Jo Baker’s Longbourn and whether it should be mentioned here. It is about the Pride and Prejudice environment but told from a servant’s point of view. I found it very interesting especially as I have only recently discovered that my great grandparents were servants in the first half of the nineteenth century in a London household. For me it added a new dimension to the Jane Austen story.

    • Hi Nawnim, nice to hear from you again. Yes, Longbourn is perfectly appropriate to mention here – I nearly mentioned it myself in the paragraph where I mentioned Mr Pip, but decided that I had to stop somewhere. I have reviewed it on this blog if you are interested. How interesting that you have a connection to the story it tells!

      BTW, if you are reading blogs this weekend, you might just see Longbourn mentioned in an upcoming scheduled post!

        • Haha, sorry Nawnim for being mysterious. Basically, I was saying that if you read my blog on Saturday you’ll see a reference to Longbourn. I’m going away for a few days so have scheduled a post to publish then.

  6. Thanks so much for including ‘Maria Returns’ in this exalted company, and for highlighting the intention to develop the slavery issue from the few references to it in Mansfield Park, and the question of whether Maria can be redeemed from her ‘fallen’ situation at the end of that novel. You may be interested to know that the Catholic critic, Edmund Campion, saw it as a story of redemption.

    • A pleasure Ros – and you just might see it pop up again soon. Just saying 😉 I like using these sorts of posts to highlight older books that people might like to look out for.

      I think Edmund Campion is right, btw.

  7. What about the Hogarth Shakespeare Series? So far about eight novels inspired by the plays have been published. These adaptions can work well, for example, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. Just like The Winter’s Tale it matched heartbreaking tragedy in the first half with rollicking comedy in the second half. But Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was a disaster – There’s no way to connect the shallow and boring Felix with Prospero. Overall, the Hogarth project is good – Shakespeare himself often retold older tales and did it so well he’s been inspiring story-tellers ever since.

    • I’ve heard of Hag-Seed Bryce but didn’t realise it was part of a series. Sounds like the Jane Austen Project which commissioned established writers to write to her six novels. I’ve heard good things about Hag-Seed but then I’ve heard widely divergent responses to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (her response to P&P in the JA Project. I’ve not read it.)

  8. This is such an interesting post. I have not read a lot of retellings. I have it in my head that there are a lot of bad ones out there but I do not have evidence to back up that contention. I agree with you that such stories would work best when the author aims at retelling the story from a different angle. I did really like The Penelopiad which I think is s great example of what you are talking about.

    • Thanks Brian. I suspect there probably are a lot of bad – or let’s say, ordinary – ones out there. But maybe they fulfil a need for some people who don’t want to let go of something they love?

      Glad you liked The Penelopiad too.

  9. I’m a sucker for Jane Austen fan fiction (never know what to call these either) and am usually disappointed, although enjoyed Amanda Grange’s Captain Wentworth’s Diary.

    • Haha Rose, I love Austen but avoid the fan-fiction. I’ve only read three, in fact, and all since I started blogging. I do hear, every now and then, of one that stands out – and I know other Austen fans who love to read them. I haven’t heard at all of Captain Wentworth’s diary. That sounds intriguing at least. Not another rewrite of P&P from one character’s point of view or another!

  10. I can’t think of any Australian examples other than Colleen McCullough’s historical fiction series about Troy (I read the beginning of one – not a fan!). The best I can come up with is the Flashman spinoffs from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

    • Well, that’s a start Bill. (I haven’t read those McCullough books at all, though some people say they are great.) I haven’t heard of the Flashman spinoffs. Are they comics or graphic novels?

      • Flashman bullied Tom Brown and was expelled from Rugby for drunkenness. He was given his own series so to speak by George Macdonald Fraser (I had to look this up) 12 books with lurid covers, of his adventures as a soldier and a cad. There was even a movie starring Malcolm McDowell

  11. Those Flashman books may come in lurid covers but it would be a shame not to try them! Macdonald is superb on historical detail…Flashman and the Dragon gives fascinating detail on the Taiping rebellion and certainly the first six books of the series are well worth a read. His Flashman is both appalling and hilarious and skews Victorian values with great panache.

    Not quite a retelling or reimagining of an existing novel but James Robertson’s novel The Testament Of Gideon Mack is a fascinating updating of the themes of James Hogg’s Memoirs/Confessions Of A Justified Sinner (Scotland’s greatest novel).

  12. I wasn’t impressed by Wide Sargasso Sea. I don’t think it brought anything to the original.

    I loved The Meursault Investigation which I think is an excellent companion book to L’Etranger by Camus. It brings some light on the original novel and it’s used as a basis to talk about today’s Algeria.

    I couln’t finish Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, based on Emma by Jane Austen. Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James was an epic disaster, proving that being a good writer doesn’t help write good parallel fiction.

    It’s a tricky craft, these parallel novels and good ones are difficult to find.

    • Thanks for all this Emma. It is a tricky craft, which is why I tend not to read them, particularly the Jane Austen ones. I heard that Emma was terrible. The only one in that project, of the first four anyhow, that I’ve heard anything positive about is Trollope’s Sense and sensibility. And love your assessment of PD James’ book!

      I have regularly heard positives about the Meursault book … from you and others. Sounds well worth trying. Sounds like it was written with a clear aim rather than to simply update or rewrite or continue the story.

  13. Pingback: Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright #BookReview | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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