Today on the blog I am delighted to share with you the wonderful, ‘Another Twist in the Tale,’ by Catherine Bruton, a thrilling adventure inspired by Charles Dicken’s, ‘Oliver Twist.’ What if Oliver hadn’t been an only child but instead had a twin sister born just before him, who was tossed into the gutter left to die. Rescued by Baggage, Twill Test is brought to live in a gambling den, no life of luxury awaiting for her as Oliver found. But as she gets older she is forced to flee the den and ends up on the streets of London and encounters a group of girls who are robbing for themselves and not at the behest of a wicked master. Twill seems happy with her way of life until a chance encounter with some familiar figures makes her question everything she’s ever known about herself. This brilliantly imagined reinterpretation of this famous story is completely wonderful, I loved the contrast between the misery of Fagin’s boys and the Sassy Sisters. In this feminist take of the story we see how little value there is in the life of girls and how this merry band use this to their advantage and to ultimately challenge those who would threaten their existence. The characterisation is superb, the dastardly villains are truly evil and Twill is truly remarkable despite what life has thrown at her. An absolute triumph in storytelling that is bound to captivate and thrill readers.
To celebrate the release of, ‘Another Twist in the Tale,’ I have a special guest post from Catherine about why she chose to do a feminist retelling of this much loved story.
A feminist twist in the tale? – Catherine Bruton
My new novel ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ – a middle-grade sequel to Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, set in Victorian London and featuring Oliver’s long lost twin sister – opens with the line ‘Girls are worth less than boys!’ and closes with ‘The female fightback has begun – and our heroine is throwing the first punch’. So yes, this tale of Oliver Twist’s twin sister has a feminist twist! In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that in this novel and my next ‘The Monster’s Child’ – a sequel to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ – I deliberately set out to give voice to the voiceless. And not just girls – my mission was to tell the tales of all those marginalised, silenced, overlooked characters from the classics.
Because, let’s face it, the canon of classic British Literature is overpopulated with voices and faces which are male, pale, straight and able. As Jane Austen put it ‘The pen has been in their hands’, and the lack of diverse voices in the classic literary canon means that the stories which have been told for decades – for centuries – are inevitably limited in scope. The voices of the marginalised – not just of women but of those of different cultures, those who are differently abled, neuro-diverse voices, LGBTQ voices – are rarely heard. Even if such faces exist in the classics we rarely get their perspectives – and their outcomes/ fates too often confirm unhelpful social biases.
But, I hear you cry, there are so many great female authors and so many fantastic female characters in the classics! And of course you are right: Lizzie Bennet, Cathy Earnshaw, Oliver’s Nancy, Miss Havisham, Estella, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Anne Elliot… the list goes on. But the questions we need to ask are: Who are they? What do we hear of them? What – and who – don’t we hear? And what happens to these women in the end?
I remember sitting in the glorious reading room of the Bodliean Library in my first week at university and picking up book called ‘The Madwomen in the Attic’ (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) which explores how the ‘socially unacceptable’ faces of female experience are forced into the ‘attic’ of many classic stories. The most obvious example is Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ where the demure, obedient, submissive Jane is heard and praised, whilst the passionate, angry – non-European and neuro-diverse – Bertha is vilified by both her society and by the text – locked away, silenced, ultimately killed for her deviance to social norms. Gilbert and Gubar argue that such dichotomies populate 19th Century novels, by both men and women: female characters who fit an acceptable social mould are praised and allowed to triumph; those who don’t are silenced and punished.
Are they right? Is it true that girls in the classics are rarely allowed to be angry or disobedient or passionate or adventurous, and if they are they must either mend their ways or meet a sticky end? It’s certainly true that if they break the rules society laid down for women, nothing will save them! Nancy is brave and heroic – but she’s a prostitute so she has to die; Cathy Earnshaw is passionate, wild and adventurous – but she has an extra-marital affair (even if only emotionally) so she has to die; Tess is pure and true of heart – but she has a baby out of wedlock (probably as a result of rape!) and so she has to die… Yup, to be honest, I struggle to name one Victorian heroine who breaks all the social conventions and is allowed to have a truly happy ending.
So how do we redress the balance? Well, one of my favourite novels of all time is Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which gives voice to the original ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Rochester – telling the story from her perspective, making the reader think anew about ‘Jane Eyre’. Rhys – herself of Caribbean origin and having suffered from mental illness – gives us new insight into Bertha’s experience, not taking away from Bronte’s masterpiece, but rather complementing it, adding new layers of meaning to the text. This first ignited my fascination with the idea of giving voice to voiceless characters in literature, a rich tradition which has spawned so much incredible writing – from Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister, to Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’, the brilliant Netflix series ‘Enola Holmes’, Imogen Russell William’s ‘The Women Left Behind’, Alice Randall’s ‘The Wind Done Gone’, ‘Ahab’s Wife’ by Sena Jeter Naslund, ‘Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead’ by Tom Stoppard, ‘Foe’ by J.M. Coetzee and so many more!
So why did I choose to create a new Dickensian heroine? Well, I adore Dickens’ novels – writing ‘Another Twist in the Tale’, following in the footsteps of Oliver Twist has been the greatest privilege and adventure – but his presentation of women is … problematic! Let’s think about Dickens’ women: we have perfect little cherubs like Little Nell and Sissy Jupe; and idealised ‘Angels in the House’ like Esther Summerson and Rachel from ‘Hard Times’; on the other hand there are monstrous matriarchs, harridans and murderers Miss Havisham, Mrs Joe, Moll, Mrs Corney; oh, and there are saintly whores like Nancy – who we can sympathise with so long as they die. Girls in Dickens don’t seem to be allowed to be just flawed human beings, three dimensional. We don’t see them coming of age or going on adventures or growing up as people. We don’t see a female Pip or Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield. None of this takes away from the brilliance of his storytelling but it does mean that if a girl wants a role model in Dickens her options are quite polarised.
So I created Twill Twist, a heroine who is spirited and adventurous, prepared to challenge social norms, to take on the world and save the day. An orphan baby cast out into the snow (because she’s a girl) and rescued by a young kitchen maid named Baggage Jones, Twill is raised surrounded by the beautiful butterfly girls from whom she learns that girls have to fight to survive in Queen Victoria’s England. And when she finds herself cast adrift on the streets of London she encounters the Sassy Sisterhood of Saffron Hill, an all-girl band of pickpockets and kickass little lady lawbreakers who take orders from no man, and welcome our brave heroine under their wing. So Twill learns girl power, even as she fights against the laws of primogeniture and challenges the patriarchy!
As the plot thickens, Twill finds herself in a tangled web of intrigue involving child-catchers, a poison plot and kids who are turning mysteriously blue. It seems the only person who can save the day is Oliver Twist – but Oliver is nowhere to be found. If only there were another Twist in this tale to come to the rescue, along with a band of brave street girls, and a bit of help from the beautiful Butterflies, and Miss Baggage Jones … after all, anything boys can do, girls can do better, right?
When I was a kid, acting out Oliver Twist with my kid brother, I always wanted to play the Dodger – the mischievous, adventurous rascal with the big bold heart. In Twill, I tried to create a female counterpart – a girl with agency and spirit and guts, brains and brawn and beauty, who saves herself and saves her friends and saves the day! So, whilst my novel draws on the Dickensian tradition featuring a saintly Angel as well as the monstrous Madame Manzoni and spiteful Mrs Spanks – it also celebrates an ordinary collection of heroines – Baggage, Chelsea, Pearl, Sloane, Birdie, Anna Dropsy and Miss Twill Twist. Oh, and there are plenty of brave and brilliant boys in there too!
Young readers today face their own struggles over rigid gender definitions and expectations, and I hope ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ will challenge some of those and make them ask some big questions. But, most of all, I tried to follow in the rich Dickensian tradition of page-turning, cliff-hanging, unputdownable story-telling, so I hope all readers, regardless of gender, will love following this rip-roaring adventure to the very final thrilling twist in the tale!
Thank you to Catherine for this really insightful guest post, I absolutely loved Wide Sargasso Sea too so I loved how this helped ignite the idea for this story.