How do you feel about book sequels written by someone other than the original author, usually many years later?
I’ve been chewing on that question this week, after reading an article by Rosalie Higson in The Weekend Australian Review about Australian author Colleen McCullough’s new offering, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
McCullough (best known for the Thorn Birds and her Masters of Rome series) has re-imagined the Bennet sisters 20 years on, with the tuneless, personality-challenged Mary being the focus of the story.
In this story, Mary breaks free after her mother’s passing and, with a crusading fire in her belly, sets off to write a book about the treatment of the poor in industrial northern England. She encounters dangers and romance, before emerging as a “most exotic orchid”.
This concept of re-imagining literary characters is nothing new. A number of writers have created sequels to classics whose original authors are no longer with us. And literary critics have long turned their nose up at the practice, demeaning it as cheap way to cash in on fans’ hunger to know more about characters they hold close to their hearts.
McCullough herself admits she loves to annoy the literati, which was one of the aspects that appealed to her with this project (along with wanting to understand “why Jane Austen didn’t like Mary, to whom she devoted a whole eight sentences,” and explore “whatever happened to Mary?”).
For me, the question is not why a writer would want to write about another author’s characters. The answer is obvious: they either love or are fascinated by a character or characters, and believe they can deliver the next chapter in their lives. In popular fiction this is called “fan fic”, and is most commonly found in the world of sci and fantasy, where novels are regularly churned out featuring characters from television shows (e.g. Buffy, Angel and Star Trek) by writers who have no connection to the original creations.
The question for me, is how would the original author feel about it?
The Guardian’s Books Blog tackled the subject when a second sequel to Gone with the Wind was released. The blog author is perplexed by the way in which these types of sequels are so reviled.
The blog points out that sequel writing exists unmaligned in other formats such as film and television, where fans and critics don’t seem overly perturbed by the fact that numerous writers are involved.
The blog puts it down to literary snobbery, and asks why sequels, prequels and companion books can’t have literary merit in their own right.
But unlike the “fan fic” – whose original characters and stories were developed by a team of writers – novels are traditionally written by individuals. Characters are created in their minds and further developed on the page.
To have another writer interpret your characters and take them in directions you might never have foreseen for them could be either flattering or insulting.
It’s not about the new writer’s background, talent, or even intention. It’s a question of whether anyone other than a character’s creator can truly tell you what might happen next.
It also treads sacred ground with fans as well, who have their own ideas on what may or may not have happened after the last page of the original book. How will fans of Pride and Prejudice (who may or may not have picked up one of the 20 plus other “sequels”) feel about D’Arcy having ambitions to become Prime Minster and Elizabeth being unhappy, as is the case in The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.
McCullough’s novel intrigues me, purely because Mary is such an under-drawn character in Austen’s classic. But I’m not sure I want my experience of the rest of characters in the original novel influenced or challenged by anyone other than Austen. And that’s obviously never going to happen.
I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the subject.
Have you read a sequel to classic by another writer? Did you love it, hate it or were indifferent? Do you not care: a good story is a good story?