Secondary Characters Take Center Stage

Writing a novel that features characters taken from a literary classic takes a fair amount of talent and courage.  The novel has to stand up to the inevitable comparison with the original classic, often a beloved book that has been re-read numerous times.  Three recent novels have tackled this challenge, and all three succeed rather well.

Havisham by Ronald Frame takes the reclusive Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and fills in the back-story of her early life.  Young Catherine Havisham is the daughter of a wealthy brewer.  Intelligent and strong of character, yet naive in many ways, she is sent to live with the Chadwyck family to obtain sophistication and an education.  When Catherine meets the dashing Mr. Compeyson, who has an unseemly interest in her money, the reader starts to foresee Miss Havisham’s fate: wandering the halls of a decaying mansion in a tattered wedding dress.

Longbourn by Jo Baker refers to the family home of the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  The main character is Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, who spends her time cooking, cleaning and emptying chamber pots for the oblivious Bennets who are preoccupied with parties and weddings. When not catering to the whims of the Bennets, Sarah struggles with loneliness and develops a romantic attachment with the mysterious footman, James Smith. Longbourn is a wonderful book, and made me look at Pride and Prejudice in a completely different light.

Finn by Jon Clinch is the story of Pap Finn, Huck’s father, who had only the briefest of scenes in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnFinn is a dark book full of poverty, violence and slavery.  A liar and a brute, and often drunk, Finn is not a likable character.  He’s also a racist who pursues black women.   However, as the reader learns about Finn’s life, a small core of humanity emerges, and a sliver of sympathy develops.  The complexities of this character make for an interesting read.

Havisham, Finn and Longbourn are enjoyable even if you haven’t read the original classics, though it does help to have a basic understanding of their story lines.  For those who have read the originals, these three books offer additional food-for-thought, and might prompt you to revisit the classics again. 

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