It’s been heartening to see the buzz of excitement around the announcement a few days ago about Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set A Watchman” coming out this year. Like so many people, I loved reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” when I was a teen and, although there was no sign of this novel ever going away, how great that there is now a renewed interest in the original book which many people will no doubt read for the first time or reread. Who knows what the quality of it will be like, but it will be fascinating nonetheless. It’s had me thinking about sequels in literature.
It often feels like sequels of classics that come out many years after a book has been published and are written by another author are just looking to make easy money. I'm not talking about Harper Lee obviously who apparently wrote this book before “To Kill A Mockingbird.” As most people only think of sequels in terms of films these days, it’s interesting to note that there has been a long tradition of sequels in literature. I only know this because my boyfriend published an academic book last year titled “The Hollywood Sequel: History & Form, 1911-2010” by Dr Stuart Henderson. Obviously, I highly recommend it. Even as a non-film studies person it’s a fascinating and entertaining read about Hollywood. In an early chapter, it also discusses how many classic and 19th/20th century authors wrote sequels to their books.
The cash in sequel books I'm referring to are novels like “Scarlett” by Alexandra Ripley whose story followed from "Gone with the Wind." I'm not writing with total authority here because I haven't read “Scarlett” (but watched the tv series). Most reviewers were very critical of the book. As far as storyline, it seemed so preposterous and out of character with how Scarlett was in the original book - would she really go to Ireland?
One of my favourite literary prequels would have to be Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” which tells the story of the famous “mad woman in the attic” from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” as a girl growing up on a Caribbean island and how she came to be the mysterious woman in Bronte’s novel. Having been born on the island of Dominica herself, this novel succeeds so well I think because its invested so much with the author’s own identity and personal history (not literally but her emotional experience). It also gives voice to a character that was marginalized – not necessarily by Bronte – but by the restrictions of the plot as laid out in “Jane Eyre.”
A recent example of a brilliant literary sequel is Rachel Joyce's “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey” which came out in the autumn last year and is a sequel to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” I think it succeeds because it was written by the same author and, though it has lots of references to the first book, it stands on its own and could be read without having read the first book.
Another good example of a literary sequel is JM Coetzee's novel “Foe” which is his sequel to Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe”. I read both of these while staying on a Greek island last year. Even though this was written many years later and by another author it too succeeds because Coetzee uses the story as a commentary on women and race as represented (or not represented) in Defoe’s text. It’s more like a dialogue. While it was a fascinating read and contemplates the form of writing itself, I don’t think it stands on its own as a satisfying story. While “Robinson Crusoe” stands as an iconic figure in our culture today, it’s probably not well known that Crusoe himself wrote a sequel titled “The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” I haven’t read it but can only guess it’s not as much interest as the original since it’s now virtually forgotten.
I’ve been trying to think of other sequel books. Do you know of any particularly bad or good ones? Or do you have any favourites?