Ever been reading a novel and had a sneaking suspicion that you might not be getting the full story? That things might seem very different from another character's point of view? After all, we all see life through our own eyes, with our own opinions and biases and very often our own version of events - so why should fictional characters be any different, asks our Fiction Librarian Tracey Woosley.
When you're reading a novel you generally only hear one side of the story: the narrator’s version of events. However, just as in real life, you may have a feeling that there might be a completely different take on events if only you could hear things from another person’s point of view.
Luckily, several classic novels have been given this alternative treatment, re-imagining the story from the perspective of another character - one which may throw a totally different light on things. Here are some examples of novels you may like to try if you want to hear 'the other side of the story'.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte & Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
In this classic novel Jane’s potential husband, Mr. Rochester, tells Jane that he was forced by his family to marry his first wife Bertha, the infamous 'madwoman in the attic'. Although central to the story, all we know of poor Bertha is what we're told through Mr Rochester's (and Jane’s) perspective. She's accused of alcoholism and adultery and referred to as ‘hysterical’ and ‘demonic’ - all of which might be a result of her treatment by Mr. Rochester, rather than evidence of madness.
Historically 'madness' was a loaded, gendered word, often used as code for a woman who did not conform to societal and patriarchal norms. In Bertha’s case, her failure to conform is hardly surprising. Taken halfway across the world, far away from everything and everyone she knew, only to be locked in an attic when her husband grew tired of her, we know nothing of her feelings or inner life. In fact, her behaviour echoes that of Jane, who, as a child, was herself locked in a room and passed out from fear - yet this event is told in a much more sympathetic way. The fire which eventually destroys the house may have been Bertha’s only opportunity for freedom, not so much an act of madness but the desperate act of a trapped woman.
Wide Sargasso Sea
In Jean Rhys’ novel, Bertha is given the opportunity to tell her own story. As a young woman living on her family estate in Spanish Town, Jamaica, we learn that her name is actually Antoinette and that Mr Rochester changed her name in an attempt to make her sound more English - so rather than try to help her adapt to her new life, he destroyed this key part of her identity.
In this version of events we hear Antoinette describe herself as a sensitive and isolated child who loses her mother at a young age, all of which may help explain her apparently frail mental health. Her unnamed English husband relates how, on their honeymoon, he realises that he hates both the Caribbean and his young wife, depicting a much darker version of Mr Rochester than the eligible man we know and love from Jane Eyre. The final section of the book reverts back to Antoinette’s perspective and at this point we hear of her life trapped in the attic. Hearing Antoinette’s account of things gives us much more sympathy for her, a young woman who's completely financially and legally dependant on her husband in a foreign land with no one to offer her support. This alternative version also encourages us to re-assess the love story of Jane and Mr. Rochester and the roles they play in Antoinette’s tragic life.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier & Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman
This psychological thriller revolves around a newly married young woman who becomes obsessed with her predecessor, the glamorous Rebecca. In many ways the plot echoes that of Jane Eyre, featuring a gothic mansion which (spoiler alert!) burns to the ground and a mysterious first wife whose own version of events is conspicuous by its absence.
Although the book bears her name, Rebecca is not given a voice to tell her side of the story. Similarly, even though the second Mrs. De Winter narrates the story, we never know her first name. In fact it's Rebecca’s husband, Max, whose unflattering opinion of his wife dominates throughout.
The reputation of the beautiful and much-loved first wife leaves the new and rather timid Mrs De Winter feeling unworthy of the title, especially when encountering her devoted maid, the extremely creepy Mrs. Danvers. Our heroine becomes more and more obsessed with the first Mrs. De Winter and eventually learns the dark secrets behind her demise.
Sally Beauman’s sequel, set some 20 years after Rebecca’s death, attempts to rectify the silence of the title character using excerpts from her diary. In this way we learn the dark family secrets that reveal all was not as it seemed for the glamourous couple. The author maintains the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s story as we hear the conflicting accounts of other characters who also attempt to discover the truth about Rebecca’s death.
This alternative version, where the reader hears Rebecca’s own words, lets us empathise with her situation and question the actions of the other main characters.
The Iliad by Homer & The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Iliad is one of the earliest and best-loved works in all literature, telling the tale of the destruction of Troy after a ten-year siege by the Greeks. The camp where the warriors live is brought to life with vivid details of both the glory and heroism and the horror and hardships they experience, in an authentic depiction of a bloody battle.
One of the central conflicts in the story takes place when King Agamemnon demands that the warrior Achilles gives up his war prize, Briseis. This request hurts Achilles’ pride so much that he refuses to fight, causing the Achaeans to suffer great losses in the battle with the Trojans. The prize in question, Briseis, is actually the former Queen of a neighbouring kingdom. Taken captive and won as a trophy by the man who killed her family, she is largely silent throughout, along with the thousands of other women in the camp whose roles as slaves, concubines and nurses go mostly unnoticed. This is hardly surprising at a time when women were seen as an extension of their husbands, fathers or captors and not as people in their own right.
The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker’s "feminist Illiad" offers a more balanced account of the story by focusing on the devastating effects of war on the women involved, rather than purely on the glories of battle. Whereas in The Iliad the women are only heard lamenting over dead husbands, sons and fathers, this much more recent version offers greater insight into their personal experience of war.
Briseis tells us that although the men refer to their leader as "Brilliant Achilles, Shining Achilles, Godlike Achilles, we called him The Butcher" - which seems a far more accurate description of a man who has slaughtered her family as well as countless others. Despite this, Achilles is not portrayed as completely evil - eventually a bond grows between the two, and through Briseis’ eyes we see some of his redeeming qualities.
In The Iliad the warrior Ajax is quoted as saying ‘silence becomes a woman’. While that might make life easier for the men involved, it's through the voices of the women that we gain a far greater understanding of the consequences of war.
Other examples include:
Longbourn by Jo Baker, which gives the servants’ perspective of the events taking place in Jane Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice'
Circe by Madeline Miller, a re-imagining of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, this time from the point of view of the enchantress, Circe.
There's also a number of books by contemporary authors re-telling Shakespeare plays:
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn (King Lear)
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Othello)
Hagseed by Margaret Attwood (The Tempest)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The taming of the shrew)
Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (The merchant of Venice)
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (The winter’s tale)
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Macbeth)
All of these books are available to borrow from the Library.