Writing Under the Influence

I’ve blogged about Jane before, and I’m doing it again.

Jane Eyre, that is.  I’ve been thinking about her because I’ve just finished The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey’s take on  Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel.  (Livesey herself calls it a “continued conversation.”) Beginning with the first sentence, Livesey sprinkles similarities to the original throughout her novel, weaving in her own autobiographical details.  In both, we have an orphaned girl, a cruel aunt, a book on birds, a mysterious landowner, a sickly boarding school friend who dies in Jane’s/Gemma’s arms, etc.  In Brontë, of course, what comes between Jane & Rochester is Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, banished to the attic.  In Livesey, the trigger to Gemma’s flight is a convoluted and not very convincing story involving Mr. Sinclair’s addicted sister and an identity swap.  In part because of this, the ending of Jane Eyre—so satisfying, so earned—makes Gemma’s forced happy-ever-after seem pale, even insipid.  And I never quite believed the passion between Gemma and Sinclair in the first place. (Even his name, derivative of St. Clair, seems too lightweight and fluffy, too ephemeral, next to the dark and brooding Rochester, or “roof of a fort.”)

I enjoyed reading Livesey’s novel; it has narrative pull, and as a “Jane geek,” I had fun identifying the allusions and parallels.  Reading Gemma got me thinking about my own childhood, about how the girls we once were grow into the women we become.  It also got me thinking about influence—not only of Jane as the standard bearer of standing up to her man (“Do you think that because I am poor, and plain, I am soulless and heartless?”) but of plots we’ve read on plots we write.

There are only seven stories, right?  The rest is retelling, tweaks, po-mo playfulness, unreliable narrators, commentary.  Love, loss, journey/quest, stranger comes to town…   As writers, we inevitably borrow from what we read, in phrasing and detail as well as plot.  How can we not?  I’m not talking about plagiarism here, but the somewhat conscious, somewhat unconscious shaping of the narratives we “invent” by those we’ve absorbed.

Livesey, like any pro, makes her homage clear.  From the first sentence, we know that she knows that we recognize what she’s up to  Like Joyce Carol Oates’ retelling of Chekhov’s “Lady with a Pet Dog” or T. C. Boyle’s recasting of Gogol’s “Overcoat” in Soviet Russia, Livesey makes her response an obvious one.

Some years ago, I discovered Edith Wharton’s story “Roman Fever.”  I fell in love with its careful plotting, its incisive characterization, its voice.  I loved the surprise at the end, where Wharton reveals the truth that’s been lurking there all along.  I loved the way—through objective detail—she portrays and subverts the power struggle between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley.

I tried my hand at it.  I came up with a grand, European title—“Pelouse Interdite,” after the signs in Parisian parks forbidding lawn-sitting.  I put two American women (one named Edie) on holiday, spending an afternoon not on the veranda of a restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum but in a park on a quiet Left-Bank street.  They sat, they stood, they bobbed, they weaved, they insinuated and dodged.  Rain falls at a convenient moment, and a policeman interrupts a confession.  For good measure, I added a bomb scare.  Where I struggled—and where, still, the story remains bogged down—was in the “secret” revealed.  This, too, is where Gemma falls short of Jane.

The madwoman in the attic, the paternity of a child—in Jane Eyre and “Roman Fever,” these aren’t narrative tricks as much as psychologically rich and believable elements of character and theme.  My psychology isn’t Wharton’s, any more than Livesey’s is Brontë’s, even with parallels.  If a story based on another is to succeed, I think, it needs to find something new and equally compelling, the way Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber does with the myths of female hopelessness and sexuality in her takes on Bluebeard and Red Riding Hood.  After all, if we’re not adding something new, why bother?

What novels and stories have influenced you?  What plots have you borrowed, consciously or not?  If you taught a course on retold classics, what would you put on the syllabus?

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