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(Sam Kalda for The Globe and Mail)
(Sam Kalda for The Globe and Mail)

When characters outlive their authors: How we breathe new life into old books Add to ...

The author is dead – which is darned convenient if you’re planning to muck with his characters.

In 1967, the French critic Roland Barthes published his now-famous essay The Death of the Author, calling for literary criticism freed from considerations of the author’s biography and intentions. The same year, Jean Rhys won the W.H. Smith Award for her newly published novel Wide Sargasso Sea. A prequel to Jane Eyre, it revealed Mr. Rochester’s mad wife to be a Creole heiress caught between black Jamaica and white Europe, and driven insane by the domineering Englishman she is forced to marry.

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Today, Wide Sargasso Sea is considered a quintessential example of the literary riches that can be generated when you liberate a text from its author. It’s a post-modern classic. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, not so much.

Somewhere between the provocative rethinking of canonical literature and the fan-fiction mashup, there lies the polite posthumous pastiche. Characters, especially those of genre fiction, can live on long beyond their authors’ literal deaths, the lucky ones repeatedly refreshed by film and television adaptations. Sherlock Holmes has been vaulted into the present by both CBS (Elementary) and the BBC (Sherlock) while Daniel Craig’s vital new super spy has done much to reinvigorate the flagging Bond franchise. That immortality leaves eager publishers and hungry writers chomping to have another go at the original books, to reimagine Holmes, improve upon Ian Fleming – or produce another Bertie Wooster and a Philip Marlowe sequel to boot.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a new Bertie Wooster novel advertised as “a homage to P.G. Wodehouse” and written by the British novelist Sebastian Faulks. This sequel, say its publishers, remains “faithful to the history and personality of Wodehouse’s characters but by shining a different light on them will show how robust, durable and lovable these creations are.” The Black-Eyed Blonde is simply “a Philip Marlowe novel” without credit to Raymond Chandler on its cover; it was written by Benjamin Black, the crime-fiction pseudonym adapted by the Irish novelist John Banville.

Of course, the issue is not really the robustness of the characters. With the possible exception of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, reduced by popular culture to a blood-dripping cartoon, few characters seem to have been done significant literary damage by posthumous sequels. In the public eye, Holmes is immortally perspicacious and Bond is perpetually suave, their cultural currency always high no matter how many cheap paperbacks or bad movies they might grace with their presence. In their way, they are a testament to the accuracy of Barthes’ observation that the text is a multi-dimensional thing belonging to whatever audience is receiving it. They are children of the disappearing author, almost as motherless as Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield (created by a team of ghostwriters who produced more than 150 Sweet Valley High titles under Francine Pascal’s direction) or Nancy Drew, kept ever youthful by the anonymous hacks of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. No Virginia, there never was a Carolyn Keene.

The characters seem mighty durable; it’s the contemporary sequels that feel more contingent. These books are definitely creatures of their eras – that “different light” is the illumination provided by contemporary sensibilities. Faulks and Banville/Black are gifted writers, their pastiche is always plausible, but both are also acutely aware of the delicate nature of their task.

Faulks has previous experience, having written a James Bond sequel to mark the 100th anniversary of Fleming’s birth. His prolific predecessor John Gardner, who wrote 16 Bond books in the 1980s and 1990s, moved the character into his own era, thus avoiding the issues raised by Fleming’s evident contempt for anyone who wasn’t white, Christian and male. Faulks, on the other hand, set his 2008 novel in 1967, forcing himself to deftly update attitudes rather than just leave them behind. He claimed his “Bond girl” was more intelligent but no less glamorous than her predecessors, although Christopher Hitchens did complain that there was no sex until the final pages.

Similarly, Faulks takes a very light hand with Bertie and Jeeves, and Wodehouse is the easier writer to update – there was never evidence of his alleged Nazi sympathies in the books. Whatever his politics, he was, if not a critic of class privilege, at least a gentle satirist. The wealthy but idle Bertie, member of a club called The Drones, is continually rescued by his brainy butler. Here, Faulks makes Jeeves’s superiority a bit more concrete by cleverly reviving the age-old device of master and servant reversing roles: Jeeves finds he must disguise himself as one Lord Etringham to enter a country house where Bertie needs to mend some broken fences, leaving Bertie to play butler. Then Faulks develops a romance that proves the depths of Jeeves’s true affection for his employer while revealing that Bertie is not irredeemably stupid after all.

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