Passing on the Baton

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fIn the library of the University where I used to work there was an intriguing copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  As I’m sure you know, Dickens’ final novel was unfinished when he died and so the mystery of who killed the unfortunate Mr Drood has remained precisely that, a mystery.  However, in 1980 Leon Garfield, a children’s author who specialised in writing novels set in the Dickensian period, was asked to complete the book and this was the copy I found tucked away in the library.  Of course, he wasn’t the first, nor the last author to attempt to solve Dickens’ mystery but of all the completions I think his is the best, certainly it is the one where you are least likely to notice the join.

Recently, there has been quite a spate of individual books or whole series being either completed or continued after the death of the author, in three cases by members of the original writer’s family.  A couple of weeks ago I heard a discussion on the radio about this with Felix Francis and Samantha Norman.  Francis, son of Dick Francis, has always had a part to play in his father’s crime novels.  At first he helped with the research, then, as his father’s health failed, with the writing itself.  Now, following his father’s death, he has taken over the series completely, even though Dick Francis’s name remains on the cover.  Samantha Norman is the daughter of Diana Norman who, as Ariana Franklin, wrote a series of four books about Adelia Aguilar, Henry II’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  When Franklin died very suddenly in 2011 she left a novel unfinished and her daughter has now completed this.  Winter Siege will be published early next year and I hope it will prove to be another in the Adelia series as number four left one of her main character hanging between life and death, skewered on a medieval spear.  I was actually very annoyed about this at the time because I don’t think you leave your readers with that sort of cliffhanger at the end of a book.  It felt too much as if it were being written with television serialisation in mind.  If this novel is part of Adelia’s story then I hope that Ms Norman has offered the reader a completed narrative.  Unless, that is, she intends to take the series further still herself.

And now, today, comes news that the brilliant fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, left a manuscript unfinished at her death and this has now been completed by her sister.  Wynne Jones was working on the manuscript for The Islands of Chaldea when she became too ill to continue.  Her agent felt that there was enough material already in existence for it to be possible for it to be brought to completion and offered Diana’s sister, Ursula, first shot at it.  The resulting novel is another due for publication in 2014 and I feel more concerned about this than I do about the Samantha Norman book.  I love Wynne Jones and the thought of anyone, even her sister, who is an established writer, tampering with her work leaves me decidedly uneasy.  I would love there to be an unpublished Wynne Jones.  I would love there to be several.  But I would prefer that they were authentic Wynne Jones and I’m not sure that I shall read this when it comes out.  It seems that I can face the thought of the completion of a work by an author I have merely enjoyed, but when it comes to one that I love I want the real thing or nothing.  Am I alone in this?  Will you grab at anything, any scrap, however small, if it comes from you favourite writer or is the notion of their work coming to you diluted in some way a sacrilege too far?


23 thoughts on “Passing on the Baton

  1. Alex, to answer your question, I myself am a purist’s purist: I only want to read the original author’s work, and feel very uncomfortable reading (or watching) continuations written by another author. My favorite peeve and bugbear is the proliferation of Sherlock Holmes novels and episodes on television which were never penned nor dreamed of by A. C. Doyle, and while I’m against my better judgement much interested in the playing of the female Watson by Lucy Liu and would like to see more of that series on television, I feel guilty indulging in it. But they say one exception is the wedge that opens the door, so….

    1. I haven’t come across a female Watson. I must look out for that. I’ve never been a great Sherlock Holmes fan so I suppose that I have less invested in the proliferation of Holmes spin offs. I did, I have to say, give up on the modern BBC version before the end of the first season simply because I found Holmes such an unpleasant individual I didn’t want to spend anymore time in his company.

  2. This is such an interesting question. I think that I prefer the book to remain unfinished – published, yes, but unfinished. It’s really a privilege to read a draft of a favorite author’s work and it’s so fascinating to see the process. We can finish the book on our own with our imagination (even if it is, admittedly, frustrating, not to know how the author intended to finish the story!). Great post!

    1. Thank you. Certainly, where authors I love are concerned I agree with you and I like the way you’ve tied that in with then being able to see something of the way in which authors work. I always find that fascinating and when I was teaching I used to find that if I took in the various drafts of the pieces I was working on and showed the children how I would work and re-wrok them they were equally fascinated and willing then to consider re-drafting stories of their own.

  3. I have very mixed feelings about it. If the author has pretty much written the whole thing and someone else just tidies it up, then fine – but if what exists has major gaps, then hmm! I was avidly waiting for the next Reginald Hill when he died – had it on pre-order. It seems to have disappeared completely now, suggesting it wasn’t close enough to completion for publication. Part of me would love to see where he was going to take the series next, but the other part doesn’t want someone else taking those characters on.

    I’m dubious about follow-ups as well. I do read Holmes pastiches and occasionally enjoy them but have never really found one that is truly like the originals. Actually dubious is the wrong word on reflection – I wish authors would do their own thing rather than trying to sell books on the basis of someone else’s creation!

    1. Your final comment, FF, strikes a real chord with me just at the moment because I have very similar feelings where theatre adaptations are concerned. For some reason the RSC are really into adapting books into plays at the moment. This back end we are getting adaptations of ‘Candide’, the novel version of ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and “Bring Up the Bodies’. Surely there are enough decent playwrights out there who deserve to have their original works staged? I know Shakespeare used to pinch his stories from other people’s books but that’s no reason why the Company should do so today. I’ll climb down from my soapbox now 🙂

      1. Well, I’ll climb on it then! I get equally annoyed when they feel the need to have a soap-star as the lead in every second production. I understand the imperative to fill seats, but there are so many great stage actors out there and, while I’m not denigrating the abilities of all soap-stars, frankly I’d rather see people who’ve honed their stage-craft…

        1. I always think I’m not going to know when that happens because I watch so little television that I don’t recognise these people. The trouble is that they have so little stage craft that they give themselves away every time.

  4. I feel very sceptical about other authors finishing off other people’s work, but sometimes it is so tempting to know what happens next. Especially when the last book is left on a cliffhanger! I’m sure some of them are well written, but I can never trust them.

    1. You have to wonder why these writers don’t want to write something that is entirely theirs, don’t you Catie. Having said that, I did once write a sequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but I was about fifteen at the time:)

  5. What an interesting question. If I’d half written a novel, I’d hate to have it finished by someone else, but I suppose for publishers the money’s too good to pass up. And having written that sentence, then I think my honest answer is that I wouldn’t read them. Anything done with money placed more highly than aesthetics has to be dodgy. My son used to complain bitterly that too many films/television shows/books were reworkings of some once-popular concept rather than original ideas. I couldn’t help but agree he had a point.

    1. I suppose the thought is that if it’s made money once it might well do so again. But, as you say, if money is going to come before the aesthetics then I don’t really want to know.

  6. I don’t have a problem with characters being played with by other authors or in other formats once the original author is dead but honestly, I hate what I think of as franchise titles – a DICK FRANCIS book written by someone else for example or any series that is carried on for nothing more than money making. If a character’s tale needs resolving (like the Franklin series) maybe that’s understandable but if there’s no narrative arc that needs completing then it’s just pure greed.

    1. Yes, Alex. I have never been able to understand the attraction of all the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ spin-offs, for example. The only ones that I have even browsed through I have found really embarrassing.

  7. I don’t think you are alone. It’s one thing for someone like Dick Francis’s son who has been involved in the researching and writing of the books for a long time to pick up where his dad left off, it’s something else entirely for someone to finish an unfinished book. Eoin Colfer was hired to write the sixth and final book in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the Universe “trilogy” a few years ago and I absolutely refuse to read it. Likewise, Terry Pratchett has hinted that his daughter might take over writing his Discworld books when his Alzheimer’s makes it impossible for him to continue. When that day happens I will stop reading the new books. They just aren’t and can never be the same.

    1. I’ve read almost everything Colfer has written but like you I didn’t even give the Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel so much as a thought. And who but Pratchett could ever keep track of everything that has happened in Discworld? I’ve not read any of the new James Bond books either, but then as I haven’t read any written by Ian Fleming that isn’t saying very much:)

  8. I’m ok with an author doing a final polish of a text that was largely done when the original author died. But I draw the line at them taking a half finished story and completing it. I would rather be able to exercise my own imagination about how it ends as I did with Beryl Bainbridge’s last novel. And as for people who write prequels or sequels to some of the classics, to me at shows a paucity of imagination.

    1. I have actually just started the Bainbridge as it is my next book group read. I have to say that at the moment I am floundering a bit trying to bring together the motivations of the characters and their intentions where each other is concerned. I will be very interested to see if I am able to draw any conclusions at the end as at the moment it seems to me as if it’s a book where you are going to need all the evidence to have any chance of understanding it.

  9. Interesting post! I’d rather have an unfinished original than something messed around with. I have got Murder at Mansfield Park on my TBR, but the author made it clear at an event I went to that it’s a tribute, using the original characters but putting them in new situations, and I was reassured by the amount of research she did and clear love for Austen. Having said that, I’m still not sure how I’ll take it!

    1. The only Austen follow on I’ve ever been able to come to grips with was Jane Aiken’s ‘Jane Fairfax’ which tells the events in ‘Emma’ in which Jane is concerned from her point of view. Never having like either ‘Emma’ or Emma, that rather took my fancy.

  10. It’s a step too far for me. Why do we need to finish these things? There’s a beauty in seeing the work as it was left when the author passed away. And to have something finish that wouldn’t have been publishable otherwise smacks of money grabbing on the part of the publishers to me.

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