When Authors Borrow Characters

Sanjay Sipahimalani
Dead Tree Diaries
Opinions - IN

Daniel Defoe died three centuries ago. Yet, in December 2003, at a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, the world listened to him musing on Robinson Crusoe's later career. The voice and imagination were those of J.M. Coetzee, who co-opted the earlier author and his creation for his enigmatic acceptance speech. Those familiar with Coetzee's oeuvre realised that this allegory of language and representation harked back to his fourth novel, Foe.

That may be the most unusual case of an author borrowing another author's character, but it's by no means the only one. The best-known examples are those of Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson, with everyone from Michael Dibdin to Michael Chabon having a go. British novelist Jasper Fforde has even made something of a career by populating his novels with characters from Conan Doyle, Dickens and Bronte — to name a few — in his series featuring the "literary detective", Thursday Next.

That this is something that can be taken too far is evident from the many tepid sequels featuring Scarlett O'Hara, James Bond and a clutch of Austen heroines. Readers, too, aren't immune: witness the scores of web pages devoted to so-called fan fiction, where characters from Harry Potter to Edward Cullen run riot.

Authors have also turned other authors into fictional characters. There are thrillers featuring Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Dan Simmons' Drood) as well as Edgar Allan Poe (Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow). For those who look down their noses at thrillers, there's Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author, both featuring Henry James, as well as Julian Barnes' Arthur and George, dealing with Arthur Conan Doyle. It's a trend that shows no signs of waning: David Lodge's just-published novel, A Man of Parts, takes up the life of H.G. Wells.

Ironically, adopted characters can become more famous than the originals. George McDonald Fraser took Flashman, the bully from Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays, and turned him into a caddish Victorian soldier who appeared in more than a dozen novels of adventure set in, among other places, Scotland, Afghanistan, India and the American Wild West. A number of subsequent adaptations are testimony to his appeal.

As Coetzee demonstrates, there are more interesting reasons for novelists to use others' characters. For instance, it's an ideal ploy to subvert or otherwise comment on bygone manners and customs, thus "writing back" to an earlier age.

The most well-known of these re-imaginings would be Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which delves into the life of Jane Eyre's "madwoman in the attic", the first Mrs Rochester. In Rhys' hands, this is a woman with her own vision, vulnerability and vivacity, not banished to the fringe and seen through other's eyes. (As such, the novel is a staple of post-colonial studies, especially as it gives voice to people from the West Indies as opposed to the British Isles.)

A parallel example is Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, which redrafts the life of Magwitch, the convict from Dickens' Great Expectations. In Carey's ingenious version, the Magwitch equivalent sets out to reunite with the version of Pip in 19th century London. Carey fills in the blanks by writing about Maggs' interlude in Australia, and there's another twist with the introduction of the young writer Tobias Oates — modeled on Dickens -- who wants to depict Maggs as a character in the novel he's writing.

Closer home, Neel Mukherjee incorporated "Miss Gilby", the English tutor from Tagore's The Home and the World, into his 2008 novel, Past Continuous (titled A Life Apart in the UK).  In this case, because of the novel's disparate strands, and because the governess' re-imagined story doesn't really cast Tagore's novel in a new light, one wonders what the point is.

Not that all such novels have a post-colonial hue, of course.  Exploring the differences and similarities between two periods in Britain seemed to have been on Will Self's mind in his Dorian — a take-off on Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel -- in which the central character's rise occurs during the summer of the Royal Wedding (not Will and Kate, but Charles and Diana). With others succumbing to AIDS, Self's Dorian remains hale and hearty and in place of a portrait we have his image on a video installation.

The one enduringly popular character who's never yet appeared in such a work is the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Not because of want of trying: the notoriously reclusive Salinger simply blocked all attempts when he was alive, and it isn't likely that his estate will do otherwise. A wise move, given the current trend of mash-ups featuring bloodsuckers. Otherwise we could well have to face Holden Caulfield, Vampire Hunter.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a writer with an advertising agency in Mumbai. His reviews are collected at Antiblurbs.