Hey, I know — Valentine’s Day was ages ago (well, yesterday!) but I sort of forgot about it because I became all engrossed in thinking about a notion that I, at least, found interesting. So much so that I actually didn’t get around to writing anything in time for the big day itself. But since “better late than never” is part of my credo (I’d be dead by now, if it weren’t, or at least homeless), along with “you might as well” do whatever it is you were going to do, I decided to persevere with my thought, which is simply that certain books, written by different authors, from very different eras, go together. Or, to put it in fancier language, they engage in a dialogue, they ask and answer each other’s questions, one calls and the other responds.
This thought popped up (and whenever a thought does so, I cherish it) during my class on the 19th century novel, where we’re currently following the adventures of Jane and the brooding, Byronic Rochester. [Do I need a “spoiler alert” here? If you haven’t read Jane Eyre and you value suspense, well, proceed at your own risk!] We’re at the point in the novel where horrible, bestial, degenerate Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” is about to appear and rain on Jane’s parade. Because Bertha, despite her importance to the novel, never speaks, she’s defined largely through the words of Jane and Rochester, who are hardly disinterested parties.
In pondering Monday’s assignment to find a key passage reflecting Bertha’s importance to the novel (I should actually be doing that right now, rather than this, but this is more fun!) I found myself asking, “how fair is it that Bertha is voiceless?” This question led me to remember Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a wonderful book I read many years ago. Rhys was, like the unfortunate Bertha, of European descent; born on a Carribbean Island, she, like Bertha, only came to England as an young woman. Taking umbrage at Bronte’s depiction of Bertha as “mad, bad and embruted” Rhys wrote a novel narrating Bertha’s side of the story, from her childhood as Antoinette Cosway, to her arranged marriage to Edward Rochester, who re-christens her “Bertha” and appropriates her money, and, ultimately, to her imprisonment by him in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Bronte’s Bertha is voiceless because Rochester has stripped her first of her name and then of her identity; she is mad because she lives in a culture that literally drives women insane. Because Bronte’s novel is such a great classic of the 19th century, it elicited Rhys’ equally great (in my opinion) counter narrative/response in the 20th. After Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre could never be read the same way again. For a far better discussion than mine of both novels, click on this great short piece from the BBC, published on the 50th anniversary of Rhys’ work.
Or Both? My choice!
Well, every writer can’t be as effective as Jean Rhys, can she? But this whole line of thought did give me an excuse to continue evading Monday’s homework (and Tuesday’s for that matter) by attempting to come up with other, similar “pairings.” The idea of companion works seems particularly appropriate, doesn’t it, in this Valentine season of double happiness, or happiness doubled or paired or whatever? To be clear, I’m not referring to a novel which simply uses the same characters as a prior novel, or merely expands in an unoriginal way on situations or themes that were previously explored without offering any new insights (I would, for example, exclude the many variations on Austen’s novels that are currently flooding Amazon). Rather, I’m thinking of works that essentially spin the original story around by requiring us to visualize a familiar story in a new way. After much (painful) thought, I came up with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, in which the eponymous heroine is a young maid who experiences in her own way the transformation of R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl into Mr. Hyde, and Grendel, where John Gardner re-casts the epic Beowulf from the point of view of the lonely, savage, ruthless heart-breaking monster. While neither has quite the impact of Wide Sargasso Sea, which is in a league of its own, they are both wonderful novels that will alter the way you experience the previous works to which they respond.
Pop quiz time (I’m thinking in student mode these days) — name some more pairings! Since I’ve had the benefit of reading the BBC piece I linked to above, I’ll make it easy by listing a few pairs, with the disclaimer that I’ve not read these particular “re-inventions:”
Well, this is my list! Did I miss anyone’s favorite, or, if you happen by and have any additions, please share!