USA TODAY US Edition
When Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen collide head-on with contemporary novelists, the result is a Dickens of a trend:
What happens when a 21st-century literary sensibility crashes up against a 19th-century classic?
In the case of Lyndsay Faye and her new satirical novel, Jane
Steele (Putnam, on sale March 22), an entertaining riff on Jane
Eyre, sheer mayhem meets Victorian propriety. Jane Steele may be a poor, mistreated English orphan (and possible heiress), but she’s also a killer, one with about five good excuses.
“There are so many people who need to die in Jane Eyre,” says Faye, 35, who winks slyly at Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel with the confessional line “Reader, I murdered him.” Faye also drew on her love of
Dexter, the contemporary vigilante serial killer created by novelist Jeff Lindsay and played in the Showtime series by Michael C. Hall.
“I’ve put it all in a blender, and then sexed it up a little,” says Faye, who found further inspiration in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas
Nickleby and Daphne du Mau
Lots of novelists have been hitting the “puree” button lately, whipping up tasty mashups, pastiches and homages to great writers of the past, from Jane Austen to Edgar Allan Poe to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the Brontës.
They range from Seth Grahame-Smith’s wild 2009 best seller, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — now a movie adaptation featuring Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Mr. Darcy (Sam
Riley) gleefully dispatching the undead with swords — to the more sedate “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” series by Stephanie Barron.
Some, like Barron, use the writer herself as a time-periodappropriate character (this Miss Austen is a ladylike sleuth). Others may elevate a minor player to center stage, such as Alison Case
in the new Nelly Dean: A Return
to Wuthering Heights. Some painstakingly re-create the language of their forebears; others adopt a more wink-wink, heyit’s-2016 tone, or strive for a narrative voice that splits the difference.
All come to the exercise as fans, although complete obeisance is not required.
“I think we honor the original text by writing a damn good story from their raw material,” says Louis Bayard, author of Mr.
Timothy, which reimagines Tiny Tim of Dickens’ A Christmas Car
ol all grown up and rooming in a brothel, and The Pale Blue Eye, which stars Poe as a detective.
“Even though I revere Poe and I revere Dickens, I don’t feel obliged to treat them as sacred cows,” says Bayard, who always loathed Tiny Tim.
“We take their work to create something that’s almost entirely new — that’s the ideal. We’re using their characters, but we’re putting a 21st-century spin on them.”
That can mean bringing a feminist perspective to downtrodden heroines, making ambiguous characters gay or otherwise add- ing diversity, or simply dealing more explicitly with difficult questions raised in the classics.
“We’re basically asking the questions that couldn’t be asked in the 19th century,” says Bayard, who also writes the nimble Downton Abbey recaps for The New
York Times. “We’re able to cover a much wider range of subject matter, to go to places they couldn’t.”
In Jane Steele, the heroine may share Jane Eyre’s story — albeit with sardonic, modern twists — but she refuses to be a victim (in a truly meta moment, Jane Steele has read Jane Eyre).
“I wanted to take gender stereotypes and flip them,” Faye says. Jane Steele is “going to swear, she’s into erotica. These people existed in the 19th century, too.
“In some ways people are just as violent and bigoted and selfish
as they ever were. I’m exploring tropes of human behavior universal to any time period.”
But reader, never fear. Jane Steele (who is no virgin) also pines for her Mr. Rochester, here called Mr. Thornfield.
Contemporary writers are intrigued with the idea of “filling in the blanks” left in beloved stories.
Laurie R. King, who writes a Sherlock Holmes spinoff series, says: “Conan Doyle’s writing style leaves a great deal unsaid between the lines. Your imagination is free to roam” as a writer.
There is an entire cottage industry of Holmes book pastiches, not to mention TV series ( Sher
lock with Benedict Cumberbatch) and movies (most recently Mr.
Holmes with Ian McKellen). Last year, even Kareem AbdulJabbar wrote a Holmesian tale,
In King ’s Mary Russell series, she has invented a young girl with detective talents who first becomes an apprentice to and eventually marries Holmes after he retires to beekeeping in Sussex, England.
“It’s always interesting to put two things together, like Lee Krasner next to Jackson Pollock. It emphasizes the differences,” King says. (The next in King ’s series, The Murder of Mary Russell, will be published in April.)
What would the writers who invented Sherlock Holmes and Lizzy Bennet and Jane Eyre likely think of modern mashups?
“I hope she’d laugh once or twice, but she’d be completely scandalized,” Faye says of Charlotte Brontë, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated in April.
Bayard believes Dickens and Poe and their ilk would be flattered by the ultimate in fan fiction. We’ll never know.
“I think of them as involuntary collaborators, and we’re dredging the literary graveyard,” Bayard says. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, do you mind, can I borrow this character?’ Of course they, being dead, can’t say no, and they can’t sue us.”