Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I had so much fun reading this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I met Curtis Sittenfeld at the Southern Festival of Books and got excited about reading this book when she read an excerpt of Liz and Darcy’s smoldering banter. There was plenty more sexual tension, and the two proposal scenes did not disappoint. Sittenfeld turns the classic into contemporary “chick lit,” while maintaining much more faithfulness to the original than Bridget Jones’s Diary, or any other retelling I can recall. The title comes from a reality TV show in the book that’s inspired by The Bachelor. I enjoyed the Cincinnati setting, and the discussions of the meaning of growing up in, leaving, and returning to a place like Cincinnati.

Sittenfeld’s Liz is considerably less likeable than the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet, about whom Austen said, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” Liz is a judgmental busybody, pushing her family members to make more responsible choices when they don’t want to. She puts her parents’ house on the market for them and makes her younger sisters move out and get jobs. She’s right, but she crosses some boundaries to get her way. However, the issue of likeable female characters is fraught. It is not necessary that a character be likeable, only interesting, and Sittenfeld’s Liz qualifies. Her Darcy is perhaps more likeable than Austen’s, merely reserved rather than frequently rude.

Sittenfeld’s changes are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen, but they work well within the universe she has created. Mr. Collins is less obsequious and less objectionable for Charlotte Lucas to pair with. There is no entail, obviously, and Collins is just a tech-rich cousin. Lady Catherine de Bourgh becomes a stand-in for Gloria Stienem, and she has no connection to Darcy or action in the final chapters. Sittenfeld’s answer to Wickham the cad is more pathetic than despicable, and he also disappears early in the action and doesn’t come up in the story’s resolution. Mrs. Bennet’s silliness becomes shopaholicism and moderate racism and transphobia. She may be the character most true to her roots in Austen, which may be why her mania for getting her daughters paired off seems so anachronistic, although she surely has her counterparts in today’s reality. The biggest stretch may be the big deal made over Lydia’s elopement. I heartily recommend it to any romance fan and especially to fans of Austen.

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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This is the behind-the-scenes story of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. The drama of the Bennet daughters with Bingley, Darcy, Collins, and Wickham happens in the background, as this action centers on Sarah, Elizabeth’s maid. This focus really shows how privileged Austen’s heroines are, despite the novel’s handwringing about their relative poverty. Instead of hiding it behind kitchen doors, this book foregrounds the back-breaking physical labor that enabled comfortable upper class life in Austen’s day. This quick quote summing it up nicely: “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.” One interesting twist is that the Bennet family’s cook had had a long-ago affair with Mr. Bennet, resulting in a son who could have saved the family all that trouble, if only Mr. Bennet had condescended to marrying a servant. That long-lost son turns out to be quite a romantic figure, with a Darcy-esque temperament and a checkered past, when he returns and falls in love with Sarah.

The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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This is a modern retelling of A Winter’s Tale. I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think that’s mostly because it’s just really hard to translate Shakespeare to a modern context. The jealous ravings of Leo (Leontes) seem even more crazed and misogynistic when it’s a rich guy in a business suit saying them, rather than an ancient king. And the tonal shift between the first and second half seemed even more jarring in print than on the stage, for some reason. More than the story, I appreciated Winterson’s introduction and epilogue about the importance of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s later works, and how this story is a kind of re-writing of Othello, turning a tragedy into a comedy.

After Alice

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

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Maguire, author of Wicked and a few other great books that re-tell beloved stories from different points of view, addresses Alice In Wonderland through giving a story to the people Alice leaves behind when she journeys behind the looking glass. Many of the characters, including the protagonist Ada, are original, though they also meet many of Carroll’s strange creations. Ada is a friend and neighbor of Alice’s who follows her into Wonderland. The story mostly alternates between Ada and Lydia, Alice’s older sister who is looking for her. Lydia and Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong, exchange barbs and witticisms as they look for the girls and vie for the attention of the visiting American Mr. Winter. Maguire also gives a backstory to Alice’s family: they are mourning her mother, and on the afternoon that Alice goes missing, her father is entertaining Charles Darwin, an old friend making a condolence visit. Ada and her back brace give Maguire occasion to address issues of disability, while Siam, a young former slave in the care of Mr. Winter, allows him to discuss abolition and the American civil war. The wry narrator puts the original Alice in her context, Victorian-era Oxford, and in a few passages that read like a remarkably witty textbook Maguire makes explicit the conflict about sex roles, evolution, empire, race, and class that Carroll was responding to in his  trippy, whimsical way.

Winter

Winter by Marissa Meyer

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This is the last book in the Lunar Chronicles, a cyberpunk series of fairy tale retellings. This one is a new take on Snow White, set against the backdrop of a revolution on the moon. It’s a worthy conclusion to the series and lives up to the promise of the other books, Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Cinderella as a long-lost princess turned cyborg revolutionary, her prince captive by the evil queen, Rapunzel as a master hacker–I love the way this series makes passive princesses into skillful leaders and team members, taking control not just of their own destiny, but changing two worlds for the better. The books are all action-packed, with intrigue, plotting, surprises, and high stakes. They’d make a great TV series.

This one is the longest in the series by far because it has so many plotlines to tie up. It’s like with each book in the series Meyer added a ball to the ones she was already juggling, and it takes her a while to put them all down. Perspective shifts between at least eight characters. Each of the series’s love stories had its own satisfying conclusion, sometimes even with a fairy tale touch. The over-the-top evil villain might be a weakness of the series, one Meyer had a chance to remedy through introducing more nuance in Fairest, but didn’t. Despite that, it was thoroughly enjoyable, tons of fun to read.

Beastly

Beastly by Alex Flinn

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In this YA retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, a spoiled rich kid in New York plays a prank on a fat goth girl and is turned into a beast to teach him a lesson. There are some modern touches, like a recurring internet chat support group that includes the beast, the little mermaid, the frog prince, and a bear, moderated by a guy named Chris Anderson.

The story has all of the problems that the fairy tale does, especially Stockholm Syndrome. I was a little disappointed Flinn didn’t do more to make the story more palatable by changing some of those details. The beast still keeps the beauty, Lindy, prisoner, at least at first. One change is that Lindy’s father is an addict who offers his daughter to the beast on his own. This means that Lindy doesn’t really have much of a home to miss, so presumably the beast wouldn’t need to use much force to keep her at his place, if any. I was able to imagine a way that the beast could have presented his home to her as a refuge, an escape from her father’s chaotic life, and she would probably have become an increasingly regular visitor. It may not have been necessary to restrict her freedom much, if at all. Maybe Flinn saw the ‘prisoner’ stuff as vital to the fairy tale she was adapting, or maybe she thought the character hadn’t yet grown enough to let Lindy go. Either way, it might have been interesting to read a version of this fairy tale that at least attempted to soften the more objectionable aspects of the story, but this one didn’t.

The story is told from Kyle/Adrian’s point of view (the beast), so that means that we hear all his longing, angsty thoughts about how much he wants to touch Lindy, etc. It actually comes off as pretty creepy in my opinion, especially the parts about peeping on her through his mirror. I’m kind of disturbed that this stalker behavior is presented to teen girls as loving and romantic. Adrian falls in love with Lindy pretty quickly, perhaps more from loneliness than any other reason, though we don’t seem to learn much about who she is. She’s sweet and appreciates the beauty of roses and that’s about it. Adrian’s character changes fast once he meets her too. He even comments at one point that he feels weird to be talking in flowery, uncharacteristic language that he’s picked up from Lindy’s books. That seemed like a weird moment to me. If it feels weird to say those kinds of things, why is he saying them? I’d much rather a YA romance hero speak in honest, plain language instead of unnatural baroque proclamations. It’s a kind of interesting version of a fairy tale. Fans of retellings might like it. But it’s mostly standard YA fare.