Spacious and solidly constructed, the classic nineteenth-century novel invites revisiting. Later writers reconfigure its well-known spaces, change the lighting, summon marginal figures to the centre. Most memorable, perhaps, is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the Thornfield attic, is allowed a voice and a history. She tells a story very different from the version her husband gives to Jane Eyre. The more familiar the text, the greater the lure of revisioning. Tom Stoppard’s brilliant take on Hamlet, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), turns tragedy into absurdist comedy.
In her new novel, March, Geraldine Brooks takes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as her starting point. Refashioned, it retains very little of the sedate, warm-hearted domestic story that has been a children’s classic since first publication in 1868. Like Brooks, I read Little Women as a ten-year-old. I must have reread it many times, so clearly and accurately does memory now retrieve its words and situations. The four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, are still vividly present. Meg, whose failing is vanity, behaves badly at a party and is punished when she sprains her ankle. Rebellious Jo sells her hair (‘her one beauty’) to help in a family crisis. Saintly Beth catches scarlet fever from the poor family she visits with baskets of food. Wilful Amy, forbidden to go out skating, disobeys and falls through the ice. The moral system is always clear, and the happy ending guaranteed.