Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.
Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.
As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.
Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)
“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4
Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.
It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.
In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
— Moby-Dick, Chapter 49
When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.
And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?
No, not a comment on certain politicians — my word, aren’t there a lot of candidates for this epithet at the moment! — but a lovely pot boiler of a prompt otherwise called ‘My Life in Books 2019’ which was passed on by Annabel:
Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
In high school I was—
People might be surprised by—
I will never be—
My fantasy job is—
At the end of a long day I need—
Wish I had—
My family reunions are—
At a party you’d find me with—
I’ve never been to—
A happy day includes—
Motto I live by:
On my bucket list is—
In my next life, I want to have—
Of course, this presupposes that like any assiduous bookworm you’ve actually read over fourteen books.
John S Goodall: Naughty Nancy, The Bad Bridesmaid
John Goodall: Naughty Nancy Goes to School
André Deutsch Ltd 1985
John Strickland Goodall (1908–1996) is an artist best known for his children’s picture books with Edwardian or Victorian themes, lovingly embellished with the paraphernalia of those eras, and all no doubt a nostalgic harking-back to the author’s own childhood straddling the reigns of Edward VII and George V.
The two Naughty Nancy books — both great favourites with our own children, and now their children — are typical of one of his approaches, that of using animals in period dress (mice, in this case).
These narratives, told entirely in images, without words, are laced liberally with the humour that comes from youngsters behaving badly but somehow getting away with it.
[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]
At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII
I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.
The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.
I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.
Daniel Postgate: Cenhadaeth Nadolig — Bluebell
An Ivor the Engine Story Pictures by Peter Firmin
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad 2009
Grown-up British children of a certain age will surely remember Ivor the Engine, a stop-motion 2D animated series created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin sixty years ago, in 1959. While primitive by today’s standards—originally black-and-white before becoming colour, and very jerky—that was all part of its charm, along with its slow gentle narratives and quirky deadpan narration. Accompanying picture books and annuals meant one could keep the enjoyment going, reading them to younger children (as I did with our kids, for example with The Dragon).
Fifty years after its first appearance and a year after the death of Oliver Postgate his son Daniel revived the series’ characters for this one-off picture book in aid of veterinary charity SPANA, with versions in both English and Welsh. With a very rudimentary knowledge of the language and memories of the original TV broadcasts I’ve struggled through the Welsh version at leisure, but with pleasure too.
It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.
Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.
Thomas De Quincey: On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)
A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.
In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.
Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)
This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?
J A Hazeley and J P Morris How It Works: The Husband
Ladybird Books 2015
My guess is that this book is designed for anyone who is not a husband — the wife, the fiancée, the boy in need of a role model, extraterrestrial visitors and the like — but, speaking as a husband, I found much to enlighten me within these pages. Like many practical manuals it describes the subject’s strengths and weaknesses, gives insights into his interior workings and pictures him at work and play, following lone pursuits and attempting to socialise. What it doesn’t do, however, is to suggest ways to improve or maintain the husband; quite the opposite — in its otherwise comprehensive thoroughness it seems to implicitly advise a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It’s a rather fatalistic and bleak picture that’s painted.
Grandmother Mary once had a canary (or so it was said at the zoo)
though I was distracted, nay, even attracted by large piles of elephant poo.
It wasn’t the smell — this much I could tell — that drew my attention to these,
nor even the texture or neat architecture occasioning all my unease
but the terrible sight which ramped up my fright: a gaunt yellow-grey cockatoo!
The song that it sung as it strode up the dung was turning the air somewhat blue!
“Grandmother Mary once had a canary!” it trilled, but with four-letter words.
The bulk of the song was equally strong — it even appalled other birds.
The story it told in language so bold concerned sweet Grandmother Mary:
the bird did insist, “She’s a mad scientist and, me, I was once her canary!
“She fed me oceans of foul-smelling potions to turn me from fair looks to foul. Convinced, the old meanie, that she was Athene, she tried to change me to an owl!
“She got it quite wrong,” or so went its song, “mistaking Birds Custard for glue — for Grandmother Mary ate something real scary — and turned into elephant poo!”
Old Gran we interred, as advised by the bird, soon after its heart-rending story.
It raves this sad song on her grave all day long: a cockatoo memento mori.
Doggerel inspired by the first line of the parody of the Scottish Cock o’ the North song and dance tune. One of the many bawdy versions includes these lines:
Aunty Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers
When she farted it departed to a round of applause.
It is possible to sing my lines to Cock o’ the North — just — but you many need to take it at a funereal pace and possibly pop it into the minor key
Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)
What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?
Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.
You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is
A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4
and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.