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Rewriting the Classics

September 15, 2017

I did my postgraduate dissertation on adaptation and appropriation theory, and so I have a soft spot for rewritings - particularly romance rewritings.  So I'm exploring retellings of classic romances today...

 

The Return of the Stranger (Wuthering Heights)

 

Standing high on the windswept moors, the lone figure of Heath Montanha vows vengeance on the woman who destroyed the last fragments of his heart…

 

Lady Katherine Charlton has never forgotten the stable hand with dangerous fists and a troubled heart from her childhood. Now the rebel is back, his powerful anger concealed under a polished and commanding veneer.

 

When ten years of scandal and secrets are unleashed, with a passionate, furious kiss, Heath’s deepest, darkest wish crystallizes: revenge—and Kathy—will be his!

 

There’s always been something about Wuthering Heights that fascinated me.  I studied it first at 15 and I thin my angsty teenage soul was swept up by the intensity of it all. 

 

Kate Walker’s The Return of the Stranger rewrites that story of "passion and possession", as she puts it in her Dear Reader letter, as a love story.  Because, let's be honest, neither Heathcliff nor Cathy were particularly nice people, and their story isn't a love story it all.  It's the next generation, Hareton and the younger Catherine, who have the true love story.

 

And Walker's Kat and Heath have a gorgeous love story of their own, intensity without the obsessive undertones of Bronte's original novel.  There's revenge and heartbreak, and shadows of the past that impact on Kat and Heath's interactions when they meet each other again, ten years after he left.

 

There's a fantastic interview with Kate on the Teach Me Tonight blog, with Laura Vivanco, highly recommended, which breaks down the adaptation process of turning Emily B's classic into a true Mills & Boon love story, and highlights the links between the two narratives brilliantly.

 

A Certain Persuasion (Jane Austen)

 

Thirteen stories from eleven authors, exploring the world of Jane Austen and celebrating her influence on ours.

 

Being cousins-by-marriage doesn't deter William Elliot from pursuing Richard Musgrove in Lyme; nor does it prevent Elinor Dashwood falling in love with Ada Ferrars. Surprises are in store for Emma Woodhouse while visiting Harriet Smith; for William Price mentoring a seaman on board the Thrush; and for Adam Otelian befriending his children's governess, Miss Hay. Margaret Dashwood seeks an alternative to the happy marriages chosen by her sisters; and Susan Price ponders just such a possibility with Mrs Lynd.

 

One Fitzwilliam Darcy is plagued by constant reports of convictions for 'unnatural' crimes; while another must work out how to secure the Pemberley inheritance for her family.

 

Meanwhile, a modern-day Darcy meets the enigmatic Lint on the edge of Pemberley Cliff; while another struggles to live up to wearing Colin Firth's breeches on a celebrity dance show. Cooper is confronted by his lost love at a book club meeting in Melbourne while reading Persuasion; and Ashley finds more than he'd bargained for at the Jane Austen museum in Bath.

 

A Pemberley-sized anthology featuring authors Julie Bozza, Andrea Demetrius, Sam Evans, Lou Faulkner, Adam Fitzroy, Narrelle M Harris, Sandra Lindsey, Fae Mcloughlin, Atlin Merrick, JL Merrow and Eleanor Musgrove.

 

There’s a general perception of classic literature that it's all pretty hetero - and let's be honest, that's definitely not the case.  There are hidden queered romances in many novels, and some not so hidden, so I love the A Certain Persuasion anthology from Manifold Press that rewrites, adapts and reveals the hidden LGBTQIA+ narratives in Austen's writing.

 

I'm particularly fond of Eleanor Musgrove's story Margaret.  It follows Margaret Dashwood, the youngest of the three Dashwood sisters, and the one who I liked the best when I first read Austen's original as a ten year old.  I love the idea that she has her own narrative outside of her sisters', and that she remains as stubbornly herself as she ever did in my imagination.

 

All About Me (My Fair Lady)

 

Why would a thirtysomething, big-boned beauty like Chere Adams plunge headfirst into an extreme mind-and-body makeover? To get a man, of course!

 

The bubbly diva-in-the-making has got her eye on Flamingo Place's newest hunk and fitness fanatic, Quentin Abrahams. But after weeks of early-morning aerobics, celery sticks, elocution lessons and self-help courses, Chere is beginning to think that all her best efforts are being wasted. The more she tries to be Quentin's dream girl, the less he seems to notice her.

 

Could it be that Quentin is more interested in the old Chere–the sexy sister with the outrageously flirty style, dangerous curves and bubbly personality?

 

So I've always felt a little awkward about Shaw's Pygmalion and its musical sister My Fair Lady.  The original Greek myth that the play's title references, tells of a sculptor (Pygmalion) who fell in love with a statue that then came to life.  The idea that Eliza Doolittle is a version of this thing that man has created and then brought to life by Aphrodite for his pleasure to be his life.  It robs Eliza of the agency that she so deserves, and adds a bitted twist to the story.

 

However, Marcia King-Gamble’s All About Me challenges this.  Chere is all agency.  Yes, this is a transformation or makeover narrative, but she is the one driving this, and she does it for her own reasons.  She has her own issues with body image and has used her body as a protective layer.  I love the fact that King-Gamble injects the story with new life.  For those interested, Vivanco analyses King-Gamble's use of the low mimetic mode in her For Love and Money:  The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance.

 

RoseBlood (The Phantom of the Opera)

 

Rune, whose voice has been compared to that of an angel, has a mysterious affliction linked to her talent that leaves her sick and drained at the end of every performance. Convinced creative direction will cure her, her mother ships her off to a French boarding school for the arts, rumored to have a haunted past.

 

Shortly after arriving at RoseBlood conservatory, Rune starts to believe something otherworldly is indeed afoot. The mystery boy she’s seen frequenting the graveyard beside the opera house doesn’t have any classes at the school, and vanishes almost as quickly as he appears. When Rune begins to develop a secret friendship with the elusive Thorn, who dresses in clothing straight out of the 19th century, she realizes that in his presence she feels cured. Thorn may be falling for Rune, but the phantom haunting RoseBlood wants her for a very specific and dangerous purpose.

 

As their love continues to grow, Thorn is faced with an impossible choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or save her and face the wrath of the phantom, the only father he’s ever known.

 

From one musical rewriting to another (I'm ignoring the fact that both narratives have other origins in favour of this point of comparison), A. G. Howard’s YA novel, RoseBlood, retells and continues The Phantom of the Opera story.  Again, I find myself contemplating a slightly obsessive male character as a "classic" romantic protagonist (here I use romantic as in of The Romantics of Byron, Shelley et. al.), but luckily it is not the Phantom, but rather Thorn, the mysterious young man that our heroine Rune comes across.

 

What I particularly like, is Howard's world building, and the way in which she develops a very specific soulmates / twinning mythology, which adds a new dimension to the narrative.  Here, it seems like the lovers (Rune and Thorn) are overshadowed by the Phantom figure, just as Christine and Raoul were in the original story.  There's suspense and thriller-y aspects to this novel, but it's utterly enveloping.


What are your favourite rewrites of classic romances?  Share your recommendations with me in the comments!

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