This year has seen the announcement of four beloved literary characters returning to the New Releases list. In March, Sebastian Faulks publicised his plans to bring back the formidable pairing of Jeeves and Wooster, Sophie Hannah recently revealed that she has agreed to resurrect (perhaps literally!) Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and William Boyd has just released a new Bond adventure entitled Solo. These high-profile revivals got me thinking about modern authors taking on the mantle of established characters and the effect that writing new stories for old protagonists has.
It is a trope that has been done quite a lot and tackled in many ways. Some authors decide to continue where the originals left off with Anthony Horowitz writing Sherlock mysteries and PD James adopting the future of Austen’s Darcys. Whereas other authors ‘fill in the blanks’ either in the form of writing a missing book, like Pamela Cox penning the omitted term in Blyton’s St Clare series, or in a prequel to the original, such as John Updike’s look into the pre-Hamlet Gertrude and Claudius or Gregory Maguire’s exploration of how the Wicked Witch of the West became quite so wicked.
As a reading traditionalist, there is something in this method of writing that jars a little with me. I don’t know if it is due to the old university bells warning against plagiarism ringing in my ears or sadness that the sanctity of original work has been seemingly forgotten. Can we really write as many stories of Sherlock, for example, as we like just because we want to or does the practise actually devalue the vision Doyle had for his own character? One of the main issues I have with Sophie Hannah writing a new Poirot is that Christie killed her famous Belgian off in Curtain – a fitting close on the theatrical sleuth! Shouldn’t we respect the author choice to conclude that series? Or, if Hannah decides to slot her new novel within the existing Poirot anthology, doesn’t that rather step on the toes of the original character design?
The other issue to consider in raising a character from their literary tomb is whether the outcome is ever truly successful. The connection every reader has with both author voice and character is entirely subjective and so creating an entirely new backstory in a prequel or adding totally new features to their ‘life story’ is bound to jar with the audience’s original impression. For example, I absolutely love PD James’ work and Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book but I found the combination of the two in Death Comes to Pemberley unbelievably flawed, particularly in the portrayal of Elizabeth and Darcy. One may argue that the revival was never going to live up to expectation due to such high-level billing of cast but then why not let sleeping dogs lie?!
Because, on the flip side, we always want more! It’s human nature to indulge in something that we know will bring us joy and to have the opportunity to chase new baddies with Bond or get to the bottom of a fresh, unsolved mystery with Poirot is tantalisingly tempting. Delving into the backstory of Mrs Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea to understand the reasoning behind events in the classic Jane Eyre can satisfy a deep-rooted curiosity.
It can also be an excellent way of actually celebrating and reviving the original authors work. In bringing a fresh reminder of a character or series to the market, linked sales can boost the interest in the backlist significantly and introduce iconic characters to a new generation of readers. By breathing new life into old stories, either brilliantly well or appallingly badly, the audience can once again be reminded of the reason you fell in love with characters in the first place and dive into the originals with just as much, if not more, enthusiasm.
In doing this post, I’ve found myself arguing with ideas, others and myself (!) and still I haven’t been able to resolve whether I think modern authors taking up the mantle of established fictional protagonists is totally sacrosanct or admirable. I think either way, taking on the great and the good of English literature and trying to emulate or originate is incredibly brave.