I don’t tend to participate in a lot of literary memes, but as a reader who’s constantly longing for more insight into her favorite characters, I just couldn’t resist this one, brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish. It will probably surprise no one that there’s a feminist slant to many of these (“imagine x novel, but from the woman’s perspective!”), but I have tried to think outside my most familiar box, with the following results (in no particular order):
1. Lady Dedlock: Bleak House. My need for a more detailed exploration of Lady Dedlock’s backstory is so desperate that I occasionally toy with the idea of writing a prequel myself. It’s not just that what we know of her past has all the makings of an enjoyably depressing page-turner—clandestine, star-crossed romance, disastrous unplanned pregnancies, etc.—it’s that what we don’t know is equally intriguing. Why, for instance, did Lady Dedlock’s sister go to the trouble of hiding Esther’s survival just so that she could spend the next several years raising a child she clearly neither wants nor likes? The obvious (and probably accurate) answer is of course that this somewhat implausible backstory is necessary if the plot of Bleak House is to proceed apace. Fair point, but if it’s a narrative hole, it’s one that could be papered over with some interesting psychological issues; there has to be something strange about the family situation that produces, on the one hand, the rebellious, passionate Honoria and, on the other, her incredibly repressed and bitter sister.
2. Mrs. Waters: Tom Jones. Am I the only person who was horribly disappointed to discover that Mrs. Waters is in fact Jenny—the servant girl dismissed from her post early in the novel for allegedly giving birth to a child out of wedlock? As Mrs. Waters she is a delightfully exuberant, unapologetically fun-loving character; she comes out of nowhere and lives—apparently—entirely in the moment. As Jenny gone astray, though, she’s forced to repent by the end of the novel, and probably leads a much duller life in the future. None of that can be fixed at this point, but it’s not too late for someone to write a novel recounting in hilarious detail all of Mrs. Waters’ sexual escapades—you know, a kind of female Tom Jones.
3. Lucy Hebron: “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes). When I first read the title of this story, I cringed and braced myself for a stroll through terrible Asian stereotypes. Imagine my surprise when the story turned out to be a relatively sympathetic treatment of an interracial marriage between a white woman and a black man (always more controversial than its gender-reversed counterpart, for many unsavory reasons). That said, Effie Munro’s decision to keep her (visibly mixed-race) daughter Lucy hidden away behind a mask for fear of losing her second husband’s affections is a little disturbing; I can’t help but feel that Lucy is likely headed for serious psychological damage, growing up (for a time, at least) as her mother’s skeleton in the closet. It would be interesting to hear firsthand what her childhood imprisonment was like.
4. Coalhouse Walker: Ragtime. It feels a little presumptuous to criticize E.L. Doctorow, so let me say this up front: my only complaint about the way Doctorow handles Coalhouse’s storyline is that there isn’t more of it. Aesthetically, I can appreciate the juggling act that is Ragtime; in fact, I like novels that try to capture an entire era between their covers. Emotionally, though, it was Coalhouse’s story that resonated with me, to the point that I almost wished the novel were a character study rather than an expansive cross section of early 20th-century America. What can I say? I can’t resist a classic tragedy, and Coalhouse’s story has it all, plus the added pathos of racial injustice.
5. Petunia Dursley: Harry Potter series. I can’t claim credit for thinking this one up, since it was someone else’s suggestion. The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed like a good idea. If you couldn’t tell from my suggestions re: Bleak House and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” I’m a big fan of (reading about) weird and tense family situations, and the dynamic in the Evans family seems to fit that description perfectly. One “normal” sister, one “gifted” sister, and a lot of jealousy and resentment? There has to be more that can be said about that.
6. Gavroche’s younger brothers: Les Misérables. This was a tough call, since there are about 5,271 characters in Les Misérables, and despite the novel’s already massive length, I’d like more information about almost all of them. In keeping with the spirit of the meme, though, I decided to go with some truly minor characters. Everything about the novel breaks my heart, but there’s something particularly poignant about the fact that these two cast-out children briefly run into their older brother without ever knowing it. The last time we see them, the older boy is fishing a piece of bread for his brother out of a fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens, and for all the (wonderful) bombast of the novel as a whole, there’s something about this moment that is all the more touching because it is so understated. I’ve always wondered what happened to them afterwards (realistically, I’m sure, nothing good, but one can always hope).
7. Medusa: Various Greek myths. In the tradition of rehabilitating mythological monsters, I humbly submit that Medusa is overdue for reconsideration (in fiction, that is, since everyone from the Jacobins to feminists has already had a field day with her). In Ovid, at least, Medusa wasn’t always a murderous, snake-haired demon—just a woman who had the misfortune to catch the eye of the sea god Poseidon, who (like his big brother) had no qualms about taking what he wanted by force. Unlike Zeus, though, Poseidon was imprudent enough to do his raping in another deity’s temple, and while he (of course) got off unscathed, Athena decided to punish his victim by turning her into a hideous monster. To top it all off, Perseus (Medusa’s killer, for those not up on their classical myths) later has the gall to say that this was a pretty reasonable reaction on Athena’s part, all things considered (though, in fairness, what else are you supposed to say when you’re dealing with nigh-omnipotent, emotionally unstable jerks?). In any case, I think we can all agree that everything about this little story is deeply unjust.
8. Beautiful dead women: Numerous Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems. Literally, any (or all) of them; there are certainly plenty to choose from. I love Poe, but I can’t help but feel a little alarmed by his willingness to use fetchingly expiring women as grist for his creative mill, and it would be interesting to hear the other side of the story. If I had to pick one story to rework, though, I’d probably go with “Morella,” simply because it’s so bizarre.
9. Finnick Odair: Catching Fire, Mockingjay. Admittedly, Finnick plays a large role in the Hunger Games trilogy already, but with that said, it would still be interesting to know more of his backstory. He’s such an anomaly in YA fiction (and maybe fiction in general)—a character that seems, on the one hand, expressly designed to cater to female fantasies, but who himself represents such an unusual blend of (conventionally) masculine and feminine traits/tropes. And just to further complicate matters, there’s the fact that he becomes downright uncomfortable as an object of desire following the revelations about his past in Mockingjay; not to put too fine a point on it, Collins (again) forces her readers into a position where the kind of interest they take in the characters subtly aligns them with the Capitol. Simply put, I think that that is a dynamic worth fleshing out in greater detail.
10. Ippolit Terentyev: The Idiot. To be honest, I remember exceptionally little about The Idiot; I read it when I was very young, and should probably give it another try now that I’m marginally older and wiser. What I do remember very distinctly, though, is Ippolit Terentyev’s story—and one moment in particular. Dying slowly and painfully of tuberculosis, Ippolit remarks at one point that he can no longer see the point of beginning a new book; he’ll likely die, he says, before he has a chance to finish. It’s a minor detail, of course, but in a way that’s the point; I’d guess that relatively few of us have ever thought about dying in precisely those terms, but it captures, very poignantly, the day-to-day realities of coping with a terminal illness. Ippolit himself is hardly a pleasant person, but I think that a novel based solely on his experience of approaching death would be both fascinating and moving.