Friday, August 19, 2011

A Date with Kate - Reworking –Honouring or Stealing?

My newest novel,  The Return of The Stranger, out on September 2nd, is one of a four book mini-series, The Powerful and the Pure.   These books are by four different Modern authors, myself, Sharon Kendrick, Kate Hewitt, Cathy Williams, and the  series description  was  on the ‘concept page’ in the books:

The Powerful and The Pure
When Beauty Tames the Brooding Beast
From Mr Darcy to Heathcliff, the best romantic heroes have always been tall,  dark, and dangerously irresistible.
This year, indulge yourself as Modern Romance brings you four formidable men – the ultimate heroes.
Untameable .  . .or so they think.

The original idea for this series was that  the authors should produce novels inspired by the classics of romantic  fiction – the novels that everyone thinks of when talking about the all-time greats. So the books  are Jane Eyre (The Forbidden Innocent), Pride and Prejudice (In Want of a Wife), Emma (Mr and Mischief) and my own The  Return of The Stranger  which is inspired by Wuthering Heights.

The Return of The Stranger is already on sale on the Mills & Boon site  where it's been at #1 on their bestseller list for two weeks, and has earned a great review – which I’m going to quote here. Not just because it’s so complimentary but because of the very first sentence that brings up the point I want to look at here:

"I'm not altogether sure that I agree with the premise of re-working the plot of all time classic novels. This is the last in the Series and is based on Wuthering Heights. Moreover I never really liked Heathcliffe seeing him as rather cruel. However Mrs Walker triumphantly produces a powerful and intense novel which involves your emotions from start to finish. Heath is a super hero full of brooding passion and the delightful Katherine evokes your sympathy. Not to be missed - as they say they saved the best till last."
Now I’m going to have to admit that I winced as I always do – at that ‘Heathcliffe’. Emily Bronte’s hero never had that extra ‘e’ on his name. I should know.  I just about grew up with  Wuthering Heights, living just a few short miles away from Haworth where the Bronte sisters lived and wrote, reading the book again and again, watching endless film and TV adaptations, studying it for my first degree and finally writing about it and comparing it not only to Charlotte’s  adult novels,  but also to the sisters' juvenile works where they created the imaginary  lands of Angria and Gondal in stories they wrote as children. That was for my MA thesis.  And  the man’s name is Heathcliff – no e – Heath + Cliff – a very appropriate name for such a powerful unyielding and, yes, often very cruel hero.

But more importantly, - I want to go back over that first sentence - I'm not altogether sure that I agree with the premise of re-working the plot of all time classic novels.

Huh? From time immemorial writers have been reworking plots, telling the same stories in different way, with a new slant, a new twist.  Prior to the 18th century, writers borrowed freely from each other without shame or punishment. (The Latin word plagaria referred only to the act of physical kidnapping.) Shakespeare borrowed passages from Plutarch and contemporaries. Books were copied by hand prior to the rise of the printing press, and amanuenses were given liberty to rework texts. England passed the first copyright laws in 1709, as mechanical reproduction of works and new ideas about individuality became widespread. These laws provided legal remedies for authors--writers and composers mainly--who believed their works had been unfairly lifted. The U.S. Constitution required Congress to pass similar copyright laws.

But plagiarism  means just that-   lifting another person’s words, copying their story, adding nothing new or different and above all never acknowledging the debt to the original. What romance  writer has never written her personal version of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty,  The Taming of The Shrew, Pride and Prejudice . .  .   Even if she hasn’t followed the path of the original story, the memories of it, the themes  and plot lines are there in our collective story-telling imaginations and they will come out to a greater or lesser degree in each story we tell.   If I meet any  writer of romantic fiction who tells me that she had never  ever touched on any of the classics  then I’m unlikely to believe her. Where  do the wonderful alpha heroes we all know and love (or hate  as the case may be) come from if not from these classic stories?

And Charlotte and Emily  probably weren’t so starkly original as they might seem. When I did my thesis, I hunted back through the books that they had read or might have  read, the stories in poems of Byron, the ‘Gothic’ novels like the Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, all of which have possible echoes in the Brontes’ stories. Every author is  the result of who she is, what she has read, what she has experienced, all combined in her imagination.

Novelists are not the ony ones - there are films, TV series - what about Clueless? Or the brilliant Sparkhouse which turns the Cathy/Heathcliff relationship upside down - and also stars a young just-making-his-name Richard Armitage.
But some readers are up in arms, declaring these reworkings of the classics as plagiarism, some have even decided that the authors involved should be reported for  ‘stealing’ from the greats.    Now, some months back I was part of another mini series where the books took  some other Classics  - this time Classic Greek Myths – and reworked them.  No one got their knickers in a twist over that. Perhaps they didn’t  realise  where these stories originated from, perhaps they didn’t care. Because isn’t that why these wonderful classic romantic books have become such classics – because we care so much about them.? We love the heroes, empathise with the heroines (OK – some have difficulties with Cathy and Heathcliff, but I’ll be dealing with that on my own blog soon).  I know I do. And I was honoured to be asked to be part of this series. To create a brand new 21st century Mills & Boon novel  inspired by the 19th century novel Wuthering Heights.

Because that’s what  I and the other writers have  done – we’ve been  inspired by the spirit and the characters of the originals and then as authors ourselves, we created a brand new story as a result.  Of course it touches on the original – it couldn’t be an honouring of the original if we didn’t – but we’ve each written it in our own way, in the way that still delivers the promise that a romance novel gives to its readers.  The story I’ve created may work for some – it may not appeal at all to others – just like the originals. But it’s not ‘Wuthering Heights II’ or even Wuthering Heights Lite – it’s a story that I hope has the atmosphere and  some of intensity of the original. And it’s a story that you can read on its own, with no knowledge of the original, or recognise the references that honour the inspiration of that original.  And it’s not stealing  - or plagiarism.

Plagiarism is defined as:
•to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
•to use (another's production) without crediting the source
•to commit literary theft
And as academic Laura Vivanco  from the fascinating site Teach Me Tonight  - Musings on Romantic Fiction from An Academic Perspective -  said on my blog some weeks back when I talked about this book for the first time –
Yes, and there's only a problem with this sort of thing if

* there's unacknowledged use and/or use that cannot reasonably have been intended to be recognised by readers, of many elements of the original author's plot/characterisation (see, for example, the controversy over the similarities between Colleen McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi and L. M. Mongomery's original, The Blue Castle, as discussed here)

* use of entire phrases or close paraphrases of longer segments of text, unless the words are used in quotations or an obvious, acknowledged reworking.

Quotations, allusions, parodies, sequels and reworkings of/from well-known and/or acknowledged sources, though, are entirely legitimate.

I’m openly acknowledging my debt of inspiration to Emily Bronte’s great novel Wuthering Heights. I make no secret about it. In fact, The Bronte Society has asked me to speak at their Festival of Women’s Writing, to talk about the joys and difficulties involved in taking the essence of Wuthering Heights and  recreating it as a romance novel.  There are references to the original,  but there are not great sections of text that are copied, and as Laura says,  Quotations, allusions, parodies, sequels and reworkings of/from well-known and/or acknowledged sources, though, are entirely legitimate.

I find the controversy about this interesting as I‘m reminded how in 1992 David Lodge accused a writer of Mills and Boon romances, Pauline Harris (writing as Rachel Ford) , of stealing central elements from his novel Nice Work in a book called The Iron Master. Harris stated that she had never read Nice Work and successfully sued for libel. Lodge eventually pronounced his rival "completely innocent of plagiarism".  In fact both novels drew for their inspiration on Mrs Gaskell's North and South.  (This story is fully told here)
They had  both ‘ reworked the plot of an all time classic novel.’

Interestingly, as an  afterthought to this, I was originally asked to use that same novel, North and South as my inspiration for my contribution to the The Powerful and the Pure mini series,  clearly as a result of the magnificent dramatisation of it starring Richard Armitage (any excuse to post another photo of such hero inspiration!)  but I questioned whether some readers in America might  think  N&S meant the Civil War novel by John Jakes and starring Patrick Swayze.

All fiction is full of echoes and reflections that writers play with their predecessors. The Russian critic Vladimir Propp has even  proposed that all stories could be  made up of one of seven archetypes, that cover the whole of fiction for all time. No matter what amazingly unique idea you might come up with for your new novel, chances are it's already been used hundreds, possibly even thousands, of times before. You can’t copyright an idea. Plagiarism is wrong – but plagiarism is reproducing  verbatim without the author's prior consent.   That’s not what’s happening in this mini-series. The authors have  taken themes and certain elements from the classics and played with them  to create something new which, as Anne McAllister says  ‘is your own story with a tip of the hat to Wuthering Heights’(or any of the other classics).  I for one would never ever make any claim that my story even reaches half the power and the glory of Emily Bronte’s book that I’ve just read again for the umpteenth time and found something new and different in it each time. But if it stands up as a romance novel  and delivers on the promise that the Presents/Modern romance makes to its readers., and if readers like the reviewer above enjoy it as “ a powerful and intense novel which involves your emotions from start to finish. . . Not to be missed. . ." Then I’m happy. 

And if while doing so I ‘tip my hat’ to the amazing novel Emily Bronte wrote and  acknowledge the huge part that book has played in my life, then I’ve done what I set out to do.
PS (added on  Wednesday )

I wrote this blog at the weekend,  but I just had to add this note
a. Because I'm excited by it
b. Because it sort of backs up my argument really.

Because I've been asked to speak about Return of The Stranger at the Bronte Festival, I sent them an advance copy of the book so they could see it. Today I received an email from the  Collections Manager of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. She thanked me for sending n the book and said -

We are really pleased to be able to add this to our collection of Bronte-inspired fiction in the research library at the Parsonage.

Not half as pleased - and proud -  as I am to know it's going to be in that collection for ever. But did you see those words - our collection of Bronte-inspired fiction - they have a collection  of books like this. That's because they know they're honouring  the originals, not stealing from them or plagiarising them!

Kate's book, The Return of the Stranger  is available now on the Mills & Boon site where it's been the #1 bestseller for a week . It's out in the bookshops the UK on September 2nd, and in Presents EXTRA on October 4th.
Oh - and she's thrilled to be able to confirm that her next one after that has now had her chosen title The Devil and Miss Jones confirmed.  The Devil and Miss  jones will be out in March 2012 in Modern Romance.

You can read all her most up to date news on her web site and her blog


  1. Kate, how wonderful that Return of the Stranger is in the Bronte collection at Haworth. Amazing.

    And heavens, yes, if you're thinking about adaptations of stories what about Angela Carter's The Bloody Room?

    The Return of the Stranger is next on my tbr pile so it'll join me when I take long soak in the bath tonight. Can't wait!

  2. Thanks for clarifying how these books are inspired, Kate. I am looking forward to reading Return of the Stranger, and I really enjoyed writing my contribution to the series.

  3. It's true that from time immemorial, writers have been re-working plots - and I found it an exciting challenge to tell a modern version of Jane Eyre, which would appeal to the HMB reader.

    Return Of The Stranger looks tantalising, Kate....and I particularly like the cover model!

  4. Dear Liz thank you! I am so thrilled to think my book is in that collecton! I'd forgotten about Angela Carter. I do hope that Return of the Stranger is a good companion while you soakmin the bath! I seem to recall that the last time you took one of my books to the bath, you accused me of being responsible for turning you into a prune! ;o)

    And just in case this darn Blogger refuses to remember me again - this is from


  5. Hell Other Kate! You're welcome - I was amazed to find that anyone would even consider them plagiarism. That's why I've been using the word 'inspired' instead of reworked.
    I have your book in this series to read - just alittle matter of a book of my own to write . . . .

  6. Oh sorry Kate H - obvioulsy I meant Hell O - not to swear at you!

  7. Exactly, Sharon - and no doubt writers will still go on reworking plots in the future. It's been a challenge hasn't it to make a Modern out of a Classic. And I'm hoping that cover tantalises a lot of readers into picking up the book.

  8. I think that if I taught A Level English or Drama I'd make this article required reading, not only for what plagiarism is and isn't (Oi! Kids! When you cut and paste an essay, we do notice!)but also as another way of reflecting on the original novel, and exploring the writing process, and how and why people write (and read) fiction.
    Isn't it interesting, though, to see that cultural (and economic, of course) shift on originality, and ownership? By coincidence, I've been reading about art forgery, and it seems there was a similar shift in attitudes to copying styles and specific artworks. It was only during the Renaissance that European artists began to sign their work; til then, it was the work (duly paid for by the patron) that mattered, not the name of the artist, or artisan.
    And Michelangelo got done for forging a statue!

    Well said.

  9. Thank you Mama Duck! You're right about plagiarism - whether essays or novels etc - it's so obvious! And I'm glad you find the rest of it - the writing process and looking again at the original novel - so interesting too. I'm hoping to look at this again on my own blog and in an interview I'm doing for that site I mentioned above - Teach Me Tonight. It's been educational wearing all my hats - academic, writer, critic, Emily Bronte-fangirl as this book comes out.

    That's interesting too about art and art forgery - didn't know that about the fact that artists didn't sign their work - and why. Of course the whole thing has been put into another spin with the curse of book piracy on the internet, some people don't even see that as wrong - they're just 'sharing'!!