Recently I conducted an Instagram poll asking my followers if they’d rather see a Five Favorites post focusing on retellings of classic literature or retellings of myths. Classics won by the narrowest of margins, but as I sit here writing this post, I’m still pondering exactly what the distinction between these two genres should be. Is The Odyssey a classic or a myth? What about fairy tales? Are they classics, myths, or their own category entirely? All this is to say that while I absolutely adore retellings, I apparently have more complicated feelings about this method of categorizing than I originally thought.
Today I’m sharing my five favorite classic literature retellings using my own murky definition of classic literature. I’ll also be sharing my favorite myth and fairytale retellings in a future post (or two?). While I love my list, I have to say that in the process of researching this post I actually added a lot more books to my own reading list than I have to share with you. To name a few, I’m very excited about Solsbury Hill; I, Iago; A Thousand Acres; Pride; and House of Names. I’m also not including any books from the Hogarth Shakespeare Collection, but I do highly recommend checking those out!
Without further ado, here are five of my favorite retellings of classic literature. I hope you find a book that helps you fall in love with classic stories!
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. This is the classic retelling of Jane Eyre that still isn’t as widely read as it ought to be. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives us the perspective of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, to comment on the maddening restraints of Victorian femininity, British colonialism, and forced assimilation. I love Jane Eyre, but the more I read it the less it feels like a proto-feminist text and the more it becomes a problematic artifact of its time. As much as I adore the protagonist, overall it’s a book that enforces a very moralist, very white version of womanhood. Rhys—a British woman who grew up in Jamaica—clearly has similar issues with her source material and presents a very anti-colonialist message in this book. Wide Sargasso Sea takes place in three parts. In Part I, we see Rochester courting Bertha (whose “real” name is Antoinette in Rhys’ version) and the physical passion the two have for each other. It’s so different from Rochester’s psychological and spiritual connection with Jane that it’s really fascinating to for Jane Eyre readers to watch unfold. The second part of the book shows Rochester’s infidelity and psychological torment of Antoinette, who he begins to call Bertha. And finally, we see Bertha’s move to England and descent into madness in the stream-of-consciousness final section. The highly stylized structure and language make this book quite challenging to read, but it is so so worth it for any fan—or hater—of Jane Eyre.
The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth. After reading The Iliad in college, the one story I could not get out of my mind was Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. This auspicious start to the Trojan War symbolized, for me, all the untold suffering the women of Greece and Troy were to endure over the next ten years of the story. In The Songs of the Kings, Barry Unsworth retells that fateful moment from the perspective of Iphigenia’s handmaiden. I love the book’s focus on female friendship—particularly what that type of friendship might have looked like in a society that didn’t value women beyond being vessels for childbearing—and the interplay of choice and fate. Unsworth gives often voiceless female characters power and agency in his novel, and what is a classic retelling for if not exactly that?
The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert. While I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with movies based on Shakespeare, I think The Third Witch was the first Shakespearean retelling I ever read in novel format. This retelling of Macbeth isn’t a perfect book—it’s Reisert’s first novel, which shows, and it’s hard for her to keep some of her English teacher tells out of the story. BUT I had so much fun reading this book because it gives complexity to completely one-dimensional characters: the witches who predict Macbeth’s downfall. In Reisert’s reimagining, the witches aren’t foretelling the future so much as causing it, and one witch in particular, Gilly, has a real motive to destroy Macbeth—he slaughtered her whole family in one of the wars only briefly mentioned in the play itself. I also really enjoyed the way the book explores the hardships of life for women in medieval Scotland. While this particular theme is a little heavy-handed, the novel still makes my favorites list because I appreciate Reisert’s agenda and the access she gives us to so many of the memorable scenes in Macbeth.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie’s storytelling is much more subtle and nuanced than some of the other authors on this list. And while Home Fire is undoubtedly a reimagining of Antigone, Shamsie doesn’t fall into the trap of offering a scene-for-scene copy of the original. The book starts with our protagonist Isma detained at Heathrow because of what is clearly racial profiling. It’s a brilliant opener because Shamsie is able to tell us so much about Isma while also introducing readers to the themes of racial and religious divides that the book will explore. The rest of the novel explores Isma’s relationships with two important men in her life: Eamonn, the son of a conservative Pakistani-British Parliamentarian and her brother Parvaiz who has been radicalized by the Islamic State. Like many of my favorite retellings, Home Fire addresses essential contemporary social issues as well as enduring universal themes. It also uses a five-part structure reminiscent of the five acts of its source material—I just love that level of detail!
*The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley. This novel is a feminist retelling of Beowulf set in a preplanned suburbia hellscape with a female protagonist who’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. It’s utterly brilliant and super weird. Willa is the picture perfect wife who reigns over her glamorous neighborhood development of Herot Hall. Her life mostly consists of Pilates and putting up with her son Dylan, who seems to constantly grate her nerves. While she loves the power that comes with her position, she’s also miserable. Then there’s Dana Hall, a war veteran presumed dead who returns from the war with her son Gren to live in hiding on her family’s stolen land (stolen, of course, to build Herot). When Gren befriends Dylan, Willa begins to notice ominous signs around her home and Dana panics about being discovered. And, yes, there is a Beowulf—former Marine, Ben Woolf—but he’s not a hero in this version. The story in this novel is fantastic, but the structure made it an exceptional book. Headley uses a sort of chorus of Herot wives to explore the women’s forced femininity and lust for power. She also includes section titles that become the opening words of each chapter in that section. It’s clever and moving, and you don’t have to be a fan of Beowulf to appreciate the art of this fantastic retelling.
Bonus Pick: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. You may have noticed that there aren’t any Austen retellings on my list of favorites. I’ve read a handful of Austen retellings and pastiche and while I enjoyed some of them, I really don’t love any of them. I’ll go on record as saying that the best Austen retelling is Clueless, but since this is a book blog, I’ve landed on mystery writer P.D. James’s brilliant Pride and Prejudice sequel (not retelling), Death Comes to Pemberley. This delightful mystery novel takes place six years after Elizabeth and Darcy are married when Lydia Bennet shows up screaming that her husband has died. We soon learn that it’s Captain Denny (remember him?), not Wickham, who has perished, and Wickham becomes the primary suspect. The idea of Austen sequel as murder mystery was originally off-putting to me, but I’m so glad I read this book. James clearly loves Austen’s work and revels in her chance to explore the manners and customs of Regency England. And the reason this is, in my opinion, the best Austen pastiche out there is that James really understands Austen’s world as well as the complicated relationships between her characters. One of my favorite moments in this novel is when Darcy observes his wife interact with his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam—a man Elizabeth had a little crush on in the original, a brief moment of insecurity that proved to me that James saw Darcy and Elizabeth not as an untouchable perfect couple, but as fully real people with a complicated marriage. From that moment on, I knew I was in good hands with this book.