Authors are taking classics and reimagining them with a feminist twist.
The literary canon, that list of books and writers considered the most important or worthy, is dominated by men. Authors including Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Homer and William Shakespeare are generally always found on lists of the best books ever or the books you need to read before you die, while Jane Austen or a Bronte sister get the odd token nod.
Even when we look at modern books, writers like Ian McEwan and Jonathan Safran Foer are cited as writing state of the nation books, while many novels by women – especially those dealing with relationships – are dismissed as domestic.
But increasingly, women are rewriting the canon, literally, by putting a feminist spin on classics from literature.
This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist contains two books which reimagine the stories of women from Greek myths. In Circe, Madeline Miller fleshes out the title character, who in Homer’s The Odyssey is relegated to a witch who turns men into pigs, and then a love interest for Odysseus. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls fleshes out Briseis, a queen who was captured by Achilles during the Trojan war, but who has often been romanticised and written as a willing lover to Achilles rather than the slave she was.
Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, out this month, also focuses on the Trojan War. The book is told from an all-female perspective and recounts the devastating after-effects of the 10-year-long battle. Haynes’ previous novel, The Children of Jocasta, was a retelling of the stories of Oedipus and Antigone from a female perspective, centred on two women. And in poetry, Nikita Gill’s next collection will be a feminist reimagining of ancient myths.
The temptation to take ancient works and put a new spin on them is clear. Women in the Greek classics were often one-dimensional and there to serve the needs of men. They were rarely given their own voice; in fact, in the first book of The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is told by her son to be quiet and resume her women’s work, and that stories are the preserve of men. The latter may have been true at the time, but the women of ancient Greek literature had their own thoughts and feelings beyond those imprinted on them by male authors. With their novels, Miller, Barker and Haynes have finally allowed Circe, Briseis and more the chance to be fully developed characters.
The Greek myths aren’t the only old stories where women have traditionally been marginalised. Fairytales, which were handed from generation to generation before being written down, form a crucial part of the upbringings of many Western children. And, dangerously for girls, their portrayal of women falls firmly into three camps: the helpless princess (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc etc) who needs a man to rescue her, the absent mother (take your pick from tales including Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and more), or the evil older woman (Maleficent, the Wicked Stepmother, any witch).
For years Disney – arguably the biggest purveyor of fairytales – fed into these narratives. It’s only recently that the studio has been producing films like Tangled, Frozen and Moana, where the female heroines are nuanced and have agency.
And writers have also been contributing to the retelling of fairytales: Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks was a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid while Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles places Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White in a dystopian future where they must rescue themselves. And of course, no piece about fairytale retellings would be complete without mentioning Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, a dark, feminist collection.
Young adult literature is full of retellings, which is understandable when you consider that many of the books young people are reading at school – the aforementioned literary canon that’s heavy on men writing books decades ago – don’t reflect their reality. Later this year will see the release of two popular classic novels reimagined for a feminist YA audience: Kit de Waal’s Becoming Dinah is a response to Moby Dick, while The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the untold story of the brides of Dracula.
There will be those who argue that retellings of classic literature are unoriginal and no better than the endless remakes of films that are obsessing Hollywood at the moment. But that’s an unfair criticism. Good retellings don’t just rehash the original story, they give it a new spin or tell it in a new way. And, crucially, a retelling doesn’t result in the disappearance of the original text – good reimaginings can sit comfortably alongside the books they take inspiration from, and even, sometimes, enhance them.
Images: Getty / Women’s Prize for Fiction