Fiction That Reflects Other Fiction

Many novels spring mostly from an author’s brain and nowhere else. But some fiction is directly inspired by previous works, or satirizes previous works, or in some other way reflects previous works. The creative approach might be original, but the starting point is not.

That can be a praiseworthy or not-so-praiseworthy thing. We’re curious what the author will do with her/his riff on the story that came before, and are aware that a different angle on that story can be interesting and instructive. On the other hand, we might sit there thinking the author used the previous work only as a writing crutch.

I’m of course talking about novels that reflect work by another author, not sequels or series in which a writer references her/his own previous work as “the saga continues.”

This topic occurred to me while reading Robin McKinley’s absorbing 1997 novel Rose Daughter last week. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which is best known as a Disney film but has its origins in a fairy tale that includes a 1756 version by French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

Speaking of the 18th century, Henry Fielding directly satirized/parodied Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela with Shamela (1741) and indirectly did the same thing with Joseph Andrews (1742). The latter is a hilarious book starring a man who, like Pamela, fights off all attempts to be seduced as he holds out for marriage.

Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 Gothic romance novel The Mysteries of Udolpho helped inspire Jane Austen to write Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1817 but partly penned in the late 1790s. Austen’s book stars a young woman who loves reading Gothic novels that make her imagination rather…over-imaginative. The Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned about a dozen times in Northanger Abbey, which isn’t top-notch Austen but still a good novel.

(I am NOT going to discuss the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 🙂 )

Moving closer to the present day, there’s John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and its many biblical references, including several characters who share the same first initials as Cain and Abel. If you consider The Bible literature — heck, at least some of the stuff in it HAD to be made up — then Steinbeck’s ambitious novel belongs in this blog post. (When God blogs, is it called a glog? But I digress…)

Then we have Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Rhys’ hypnotic work of fiction chronicles the pre-Jane Eyre life of the “madwoman in the attic” in Bronte’s novel, including how she met and married Edward Rochester.

There’s also Jasper Fforde’s engaging 2001 novel The Eyre Affair, in which detective Thursday Next enters the pages of Jane Eyre — and doesn’t have to cross a wide sea to do so. She uses “The Prose Portal” instead.

And there’s Margaret Atwood’s interesting/quirky The Penelopiad, which focuses on what Penelope was thinking and doing while her hubby Odysseus was experiencing the epic thing in Homer’s The Odyssey.

What are your favorite novels (or other fiction) that connect to previously published works? What do you think of authors doing that?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.