Monday musings on Australian literature: Novelistic re-imaginings

Years ago I read a Guardian article titled “Top 10 novels inspired by Shakespeare”. Written by Sally O’Reilly, it started with “Shakespeare famously customised existing plots when writing his plays, and added to them an acute perception of human experience which gave them universal significance.” I thought, then, that it might be fun to share a few Australian novels that customise or are inspired by existing plots from well-known works. There are many, of course, because it is a popular thing to do, so I just plan to get the ball rolling from some of the books I’ve reviewed here, and then throw it to the rest of you to share those you’ve read, Australian and otherwise.

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lost

When I started thinking about this topic, I immediately thought of relevant books I’ve read over the last couple of decades, like Jane Smiley’s One thousand acres (Shakespeare’s King Lear), Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip (Dickens’ Great expectations), and, of course, Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre). None of these are Australian, however, but they might clue you into the challenge I had in titling this post, because “re-imaginings” come in many forms. Examples include retelling a story from a different perspective, setting the story in a different place and time, and providing prequels or sequels to a story. Some stick closely to the original story and characters while others are more in the “loosely inspired” or “loosely based on” category. The variations are endless.

Why do writers do this? There’s probably a different answer for every writer, but some reasons do seem to recur. One is the desire to tell a story from a different perspective, such as, for example, a feminist one to redress the problematic views of an earlier time. Another is to bring a story that the writer thinks has something important to say to a modern audience. We don’t always know exactly why writers decide to do this, but, like most readers, I like to have a guess.

And yet, I have to admit that I tend to be anxious about them. Do I know the original, and if not, should I read it first? What if I don’t want to read it first? Should I still read the re-imagining. If I do know the original, will I remember it well enough to understand the author’s intentions? More often than not, it works out fine, whether I’ve read the original or not – but I never learn my lesson, and next time, I go through it all again.

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girl

Anyhow, here is a random few that I’ve reviewed on my blog. I’m listing them alphabetically by author. I did consider trying to categorise them – but decided that would take me down a rabbit-hole!

  • Janet Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost (2007) (my review): reimagines the Orpheus story, with a feminist perspective, making the woman the would-be rescuer.
  • David Malouf’s Ransom (2009) (my review): re-visions the section of the Iliad in which Priam visits Achilles to ask for his son’s body back. Malouf said he wanted to suggest a new kind of human, non-heroic consciousness, by having Priam “do something extraordinary”.
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (2018) (my review): a “post-colonial response” to Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. She gives the girl a backstory, and explores it from the perspective of the colonised, particularly colonised young women. She shows that young women were pawns in both the hands of colonial powers and of their own men.
  • Roslyn Russell’s Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (2014) (my review): an imagined sequel to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which Russell redeems the banished adulteress Maria Bertram and “runs with” the hints regarding slavery in Austen’s novel.
  • Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm (2014) (my review): re-visions some Grimm Brothers’ fairytales – “Rapunzel“, “Hansel and Gretel“, “Sleeping Beauty“, and “The Goose Girl“ – to reflect on and question contemporary motherhood.

Geraldine Brooks’ March (2006), which I read before blogging, is another well-known Australian example. She takes the absent father from Little women, Mr March, and creates story about him, focusing on his role in the Civil War.

Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book cover

Not surprisingly, classics (in both senses of the words), myths and fairy-tales feature strongly in these re-imaginings because they provide a springboard that doesn’t have to be explained to the reader. The exception, in my list, is Riwoe’s The fish girl which takes a Somerset Maugham short story. Maugham is well-known, of course, but not necessarily the short story used here. We could, however, call it the exception that proves the rule, in that in the end these works do need to stand on their own, with the original work adding depth for those who know it, rather than being a prerequisite.

What do you think? And, have you read novelistic re-imaginings? Do you like them, and why or why not? We’d love to hear from you.

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Novelistic re-imaginings

  1. I’m sure you heard my pleas for an ‘easy’ MM so I would be able to make an intelligent comment, so thank you, but the terrible thing is I never notice when an author is using one of the ‘standard’ plots, despite how often I nod my head and look intelligent when someone says BJ’s Diary is just a rehash of Mansfield Park and so on.

    Referencing is easier, especially if the author lays it on with a trowel like JTH in Orpheus Lost, so let me say Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia references de Sade’s Justine (and Hamlet apparently though that is one of the many Shakespeares with which I am completely unfamiliar).

    Next time I’m reading the journal of the ALS I may ‘think’ of another.

    • This made me laugh Bill. Probably something you think easy others may not! I must say that I understand what you are saying. I’m not aways the fist to notice these re-imaginings, unless they are obvious – the title, the names of the characters (like Ophelia!), a really obvious plot.

      If you come across another you are of course welcome to share – any time!

  2. This is a very provocative topic and my mind wandered to Japanese film and literature. We are familiar with Kurosawa’s King Lear (Ran) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood), but Japanese modern authors have also incorporated Shakespeare’s story lines. A New Hamlet by Osamu Dazai comes to mind. Even more interesting is how manga took on Shakespeare in graphic novel form. Tezuka Osamu, the father of manga, created many manga series inspired by Shakespeare. That list is huge!

    Sorry I didn’t comment on Australian literature and Shakespeare, but I was thrilled to be somewhat familiar with the works you described.

    • You don’t have to comment on Australian literature, Carolyn, so no need to apologise. I love that you have joined in with something different, in fact. I knew of Ran, of course, but didn’t realise how often the Japanese reference Shakespeare. Interesting.

  3. It’s a tricky question for me. Some “re-imaginings” are inventive (like the Jean Rhys you mention) and if the purpose is to bring a new perspective to light I’m good with that. It’s the prequels and sequels which spin off from the original that I have a strong aversion to – they just feel lazy to me, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to come up with their own idea.

    • Yes, I’m not a huge fan of prequels and sequels either Karen. Of the hundreds of Austen ones, I’ve read about three. The Aussie one I list here is interesting because slavery is mentioned in Mansfield Park and readers and critics forever wonder about what Austen was thinking, doing. It was around the time of the abolition movement, so taking Maria to a slave state worked. The MP background adds an extra “story” for, depth to, the protagonist.

      • Postcolonial criticism has certainly delved deeply into Austen’s novels – some of the conclusions do seem to be rather tenuous but yes, I can see the point of the re-imaging of Maria’s life, since from what I remember Mansfield Park is the only novel where the connection to slavery is evident.

  4. I like them sometimes. I was reading a novel from Heathcliff’s point of view (from Wuthering Heights) on the night my first child was born.
    The most recent one I liked a lot was Hag-Seed, a reimagining of The Tempest, in a series of reimaginings of Shakespeare. Hag-Seed is by Margaret Atwood.

  5. Th only one that comes to mind (as not having been mentioned by you) is Peter Carey’s wonderful “Jack Maggs”. Given to me by my most-loved sister, the one who was more like a mother to me and who frequently gave me books I fell in love with, I can remember reading it in an ENORMOUS bath at what was then the Regent Hotel in Sydney (CS and I were wont, occasionally, to leave our CS-built home on Dangar Island to spend a weekend at the Regent). Happy days ..

  6. Kate Forsyth does retellings of fairy tales: Bitter Greens is a retelling of Rapunzel and another one retells Beauty and the Beast. And Jackie French did a YA retelling of Hamlet called Ophelia: Queen of Denmark.
    Not Australian, but oh, such an interesting book, is Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright).

    • Haha Lisa, you’ve woken up and your brain is clearly not dead now! Good one … I know of Kate Forsyth’s but haven’t read them, and had forgotten about them when writing this post. Silly me. I hadn’t even heard of Jackie French’s though. She’s written so much, it’s hard to keep up!

      I don’t know Frankenstein in Baghdad but thanks for sharing that too.

  7. Author Sulari Gentill, best known for her crime novels, has written a YA series that riffs off Ancient Greek myths. The first, Chasing Odysseus, retells the Odyssey from the perspective of the herdsman of Troy as they follow Odysseus to prove their innocence in the siege of Troy. A great read.

  8. There’s a new Lear book due out in December, too, by J.R. Thorp called Lear’s Wife: it looks interesting too. It’s a popular one to retell, I guess? I loved Thousand Acres. And I also loved The Ballad of Edgar Sawtelle (which was Hamlet, I think?). Generally speaking, though, I prefer retellings that are not Shakespeare. Maybe because I feel as though I might not pick up on all the lovely references when I’ve not reread most of the plays since school days?

    • Thanks Buried … it’s such an interesting story. That and Macbeth are my favourite Shakespeares. I loved Smiley’s novel too, but I’ve never heard of The ballad of Edgar Sawtelle. What you say about preferring non-Shakespeare retellings speaks, really, to my concern about all retellings.

  9. Hi Sue, I like Lisa, loved Ransom – a beautiful story of love. I also, enjoyed Mr Pip. Can both Patrick White’s Voss, and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, be considered in this category? The others I can think of are not Australian, but also good reads. They are Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Parker.

    • Thanks Meg … Ransom was great I agree. And I loved Mr Pip too.

      I wouldn’t see Voss and True history as the same because they are “retellings” about real people, which I see as different to retellings of previous fiction.

      I should read Circe and The silence of the girls, as I’ve heard such good things about both.

  10. The Drovers Wife by Leah Purcell was the first one to pop into my mind, although I have yet to read it. But I did read Ryan O’Neill’s 99 Interpretations of The Drover’s Wives with delight. Sarah Schmidt’s reinterpretation of the Lizzie Borden story in See What I Have Done was fascinating as well.

    And I’m not sure if The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough fits in here as a homage to LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle or as a complete rip off!

    • Thanks Buna. I thought of The drover’s wife after I posted. That’s a great example of an Aussie classic being reimaged. I wouldn’t include the Lizzie Borden story though in this list as it’s historical fiction about a real person (story) not re-imagining a fictional work which is the focus here.

      Ha ha re McCullough. Homage or rip off, it’s still an Aussie example. I haven’t read it so won’t buy into the discussion!

  11. A.M. Blair, a civil rights attorney and author in the U.S., rewrites classic novels in modern times and adds a legal case to each. Typically, the characters are updated to have a Sri Lankan heritage like her. I recently read and reviewed Nothing but Patience, a retelling of Sense and Sensibility, which I then also reviewed. Because the setting of Austen’s novels is foreign to me — I don’t know how much money is worth, what being “poor” at the time really meant, or what clothes say about the person — reading Blair’s books first give me a good sense of what to expect, and then reading Austen feels familiar and totally new.

    • How interesting Melanie. I hadn’t heard of this author. I remember your review of Sense and sensibility though. (I’ve just commented on your Blair post. It reminds me of one of my favourite film adaptations of P&P – Bride and Prejudice. Such a hoot.

      • I feel like there were several Austen retellings that came out in the last 1-3 years, and they all focus on the romance side from a different country or nationality. I love this idea of filtering Austen through a different culture and seeing what happens.

        • I haven’t been aware of those Melanie. There was the Austen Project but they were retellings commissioned from well-known writers like Curtis Sittenfeld, Val McDermid, etc.

      • I think it came out about ten years ago. I wouldn’t have picked it up except that my daughter loved the Tomorrow books when she was a teenager so of course I read them then too! I think his Hamlet is YA, but I’m always happy to read YA.

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