One of the reasons I avoided majoring in English when I was in college was that the department had draconian rules requiring you to take courses from many different periods.
I had no objections to Shakespeare or Chaucer and was already well-read in 20th century fiction from the 1930s on, but I had no desire to study 19th century English literature from either the U.S. or the U.K. This prejudice was probably the result of mediocre high school English teachers, way too much exposure to Dickens, and reading The Scarlet Letter (which I hated at 16, though I came to appreciate how much of it was satire when I read it again in my 50s).
In recent years, I have found it easier to read some 19th century work and have reached a point where I hesitate to go back the 20th century novels that moved me as a teenager for fear that I will see all their weaknesses. One reason for this shift might be the amount of work I’ve seen lately that is built on popular fiction of the earlier period.
I’ve even ended up doing that sort of fiction myself. My just-released novel, For the Good of the Realm, is rooted in Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers, only with swordswomen and witches. Granted, Dumas was French and I confess I did read French work more broadly than I did English, back in the day.
I am far from alone in finding inspiration from older works. I’m very fond of Theodora Goss’s Athena Club series, which is rooted in a variety of authors – Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and, of course, Conan Doyle – and manages to provide a feminist twist despite much of its provenance.
Cynthia Ward’s series of novellas that begins with The Adventures of the Incognito Countess does something similar, including characters from Conan Doyle along with some from Bram Stoker and many others. Spotting the source material is part of the charm, just as it is with Goss’s books, but another key element of both series is the giving of agency to characters who lacked it in their first appearance or to new characters created for the series.
Of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories have been a major source for modern writers, especially modern writers who want to put women into more powerful parts of the story. The Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer are well known.
But others have updated the canon by creating Holmes and Watsons in other eras, sometimes making them women. Claire O’Dell has written the Janet Watson Chronicles, beginning with A Study in Honor, setting it in a modern U.S. during a not-implausible new Civil War.
There’s just something about Holmes in particular and 19th century popular novels in general that provides a wealth of inspiration for writers.
Authors use these materials in several different ways. In my case, I found it necessary to create a different world, though the technology and some of the culture are rooted in the 17th century of my inspiration. I wanted women who were soldiers as a matter of course and a world in which the heir to the throne would be the eldest child, regardless of gender.
There are many ways of giving a woman agency in an earlier period, but having her be one of many women soldiers in service to the Queen is not something that will fit into such reality. It’s easier to put magic that actually works into an historical period than it is to completely upend the gender norms of that time.
Goss’s women have agency, but her novels fit themselves into the period, including some references to early feminism; the speculative element involves the creations of the various mad scientists from the earlier works. The bride Victor Frankenstein created for his monster lives, as do young women who were the subject of other experiments.
That is, the story is built on assuming that the mad science actually worked. Much of steampunk uses the same approach.
Another way of revisiting old stories is to take either a minor character or even the villain and make them the hero. These often require putting the hero in the villain category. Stories inspired by Peter Pan often go this way. Perhaps these days we are not as thrilled by boys who refuse to grow up.
I must say that I’d like to read a revision of The Three Musketeers in which Milady is the hero. You’d have to make Athos the villain. D’Artagnan could go either way. It’s not something I could write, but since that element of the plot has always disturbed me, I’d enjoy it.
If I amend my thesis to include the first quarter of the 20th century – and quite a bit of the fiction I’m referencing was written in both eras – the revision of the work of H.P. Lovecraft is a wonderful example.
People have been playing in Lovecraft’s world for many years, but the recent use of his works in stories where African Americans are the heroes, such as Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the series made from it, is particularly delightful, give that Lovecraft was a notorious racist.
That is, it is possible to use old fiction to write stories that upend the very purpose of the original. Lovecraft would roll in his grave, but those who are doing it don’t care.
This is also what Alice Randall did in The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the enslaved people. There was legal controversy at the time, but Randall prevailed by arguing that her work was satire.
Given that we in the U.S. are still dealing with those who believe the south will rise again and bring back all the good things of the times before the American Civil War, like slavery, I hope that more people will revisit that work when it goes out of copyright.
It occurs to me that I might still have been wise to avoid the official study of 19th century literature, since it probably wouldn’t have included Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, or Conan Doyle. At heart, I wasn’t cut out to be an English major. I just wanted to read what I wanted to read.
The novels of the first half of the 20th century might provide good material for the next round of such work. I notice that The Great Gatsby (a book I consider over-rated) is now out of copyright, leaving it open to all kinds of adaptations.
A few powerful women and a little magic would probably do wonders with Hemingway, too.
For those who want to see what I did with (to?) Dumas, For the Good of the Realm is available internationally in ebook form from the usual sources and in both print and ebook form in the U.S. It’s published by Aqueduct Press.
Nancy Jane Moore is the author of the fantasy novel For the Good of the Realm and the Locus-recommended science fiction novel The Weave, both published by Seattle’s Aqueduct Press. Her other books include the novella Changeling and the P.S. Publishing collection Conscientious Inconsistencies. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines ranging from the National Law Journal to Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In addition to writing, she holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and teaches empowerment self defense. A native Texan who spent many years in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Oakland, California, with her sweetheart, two cats, and an ever-growing murder of crows. She attended Milford back when it was being held in York and really needs to come back because she’s never been to Wales.