Monday, 28 July 2014

Classics & Contemporaries | Romance (Non-Austen Edition)

On Friday I started my new series, "Classics & Contemporaries", with the first Romance installment centered around the works of Jane Austen. You can find that post here

Today I'm back with the second installment, which is Austen free, and finishing off the Romance section of this little series.

On Friday we began with one of the most famous love stories in existence and its 21st century retelling, and today we're going to do that again!

I have to admit for a little while I couldn't decide if I wanted to include Romeo and Juliet in this series at all, because I could write an entire post about how it isn't a love story (and perhaps one day I will!), but there's no denying that this play has inspired hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stories.

In fact I'm so certain of this play's impact on the history of the story that I don't think I really need to tell you what it's about, do I? We all know the story of the two warring families and the star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of them - in fact the names 'Romeo' and 'Juliet' are often names we use to describe people who are in love.

Romeo and Juliet isn't my favourite of Shakespeare's plays - Macbeth has always been my favourite - but it's still worth reading. Sadly though, too many people end up hating Shakespeare because they're introduced to him in the wrong way. Usually in school.

I've always lived in Britain so while I can't speak for people elsewhere in the world, most of us who live in Britain are introduced to Shakespeare in primary school; in fact I first read Macbeth when I was 10 years old! If you have a teacher who can't make Shakespeare fun, however, you're bound to be baffled by him, and so many teachers fail to tell their pupils about all the dick jokes in his plays...

If the thought of reading Shakespeare makes you break out into a nervous sweat, I have just the story for you!

At first sight, you might think a story about flesh-eating zombies would have nothing to do with the most famous love story in the world, but Warm Bodies is nothing if not a retelling.

R (Romeo) falls in love with Julie (Juliet) as soon as he sees her. He murders her boyfriend Perry (Paris), has a best friend called M/Marcus (Mercutio) while Julie's best friend is Nora (the Nurse).

On top of all that, R is a zombie and Julie is not, which is a big problem considering all zombies and the living want to do is kill each other. Then again, all the Montagues and the Capulets want to do is kill each other, so not much has changed in 500 years!

Obviously there's a big difference between the way Warm Bodies is written and the way Romeo and Juliet is written, but at the core they're both the same story - one of them just has zombies! 

If you enjoy Warm Bodies there's no reason why you wouldn't enjoy Romeo and Juliet, but if you still feel a little intimidated by the Old English language why not try watching one of the many adaptations of Romeo and Juliet first? Baz Luhrmann's adaptation, originally released in 1996, is particularly useful, as it's set in the 21st century but still uses the Old English language.

Now we're going to travel forward 300 years, to the Victorian era, where another famous classic awaits us...

Charlotte Brontë's most famous work, Jane Eyre, was first published in 1847 under the pseudonym "Currer Bell". Upon its original release The Quarterly Review claimed it was "an anti-Christian composition", and it is a commonly held belief that Brontë wrote the novel as a protest against the Victorian lifestyle.

Gothic and atmospheric, Jane Eyre tells the story of the titular character who suffers neglect and abuse as a child, is sent away to boarding school and then eventually leaves to pursue a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall. Thornfield belongs to the mysterious Mr Rochester, whose ward, Adèle, is Jane's charge.

Coarse and gruff, Mr Rochester is the typical Byronic hero, but Jane gives as good as she gets and in doing so, enchants him, but Mr Rochester is hiding a dark secret that could ruin everything.

I love Jane Eyre, but I know plenty of people who have never been able to get through it because of the novel's slow pace and the density of the text. The truth is that most Victorian novels are very dense - it's rather unusual to come across a short one - as many novels started out serialised in newspapers (such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist) and in the 19th century there were no televisions or cinemas; entire families would enjoy a large novel together, over the course of a couple of weeks!

So if you have a fondness for dark 19th century tales of love that crosses the boundaries of class, I have a piece of historical fiction you just might love.

Sarah Waters' Fingersmith tells the story of orphan Sue Trinder who, under the care of Mrs Sucksby, is raised as a petty thief. One day Gentleman, a beloved thief and con man, comes to Sue with an enticing proposition. If she can win a position as the maid to Maud Lily, a young and naive gentlewoman, and help Gentleman to seduce her, the two of them can make off with her vast inheritance and condemn Maud to a lunatic asylum.

Sue wishes to pay back the kindness of those who raised her and agrees to the plan, but when she meets Maud she begins to care for her in unexpected ways...

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Fingersmith and Jane Eyre is that while the latter tells the story of a love between a man and a woman, the romance in Fingersmith is between two women. In fact Waters is well known for writing historical fiction featuring LGBT characters.

Other than that difference - and really is it that much of a difference? Love is love is love - there are quite a few similarities between the two stories. Both take place in the 19th century, both feature an orphaned heroine who rises from obscurity into a position at a wealthy home, both feature romances which cross the boundaries of class and both feature madness and deception in some form or another.

Fingersmith may not be the shortest read, for historical fiction also has the capacity to be dense, but as it was written in the 21st century its language is much easier to read, especially for readers who don't read an awful lot of 19th century literature - Fingersmith is a brilliant stepping stone towards a classic like Jane Eyre.

So that wraps up Romance! I hope this has been useful for anyone intimidated by classics, or that it's at least been an enjoyable read - I'll be back next month with an installment centered around Science Fiction!


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