4x4th Estate: Classics Reimagined

4 books that breathe new life into worn pages, brought to you by us at 4th Estate.

‘You promised that you’d forget me not’

Billie Holiday, Remember

 Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman


Sally Beauman revisits the characters of Rebecca twenty years on, reviving the mystery of Manderley’s most elusive mistress. Rebecca herself is like a prism – catching the light depending which way you tilt her – and Beauman expertly plays on this ambiguity in her novel. The cruel and wanton woman becomes a more sympathetic figure through a quartet of new perspectives, and the endless translation of her character sparks pertinent questions about representation in literature.

 The Hours by Michael Cunningham

the hours

Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is an exercise in two simultaneous narratives which feature individuals – Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith – who borrow and steal conditions, thoughts and fates from one another. The Hours takes a similar approach, overlapping the lives of three women, one of whom is Virginia Woolf herself embarking on the novel that will become Mrs Dalloway. As The Hours plunges into past and present, it takes up many of the concerns of the original novel, and Woolf’s private ones – madness, suicide, homosexuality – to compose a novel which ambitiously weaves together novel and novelist, real and imagined lives.

 On Beauty by Zadie Smith

on beauty

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is loosely based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. The Belsey family and the Kipps family, are respectively headed-up by Howard and Monty – professional enemies.  Two very different families lives become intertwined when Jerome Belsey is employed by Kipps, who then begins work at Wellington College where Howard is a professor. Forster’s influence on Smith can also be seen throughout the novel, in the opening emails between Howard and his son, in Carlene’s bequeathing of her painting to Kiki and in Smith’s rendering of supremely muddled lives in beautifully elegant prose.

  The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood


Homer’s Odyssey is here retold by Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope, who waits for his return from the Trojan Wars. While implausible tales of Odysseus’s exploits reach Ithaca, Penelope is left to fend off a number of suitors eager to seize control of the kingdom. So much we know from Homer, but Margaret Attwood shows that Penelope has a cunning streak to equal that of her husband, as having promised to choose a new husband once she has sewn her father-in-law’s shroud, she unravels her weaving every night. Aping a Classical style, Attwood turns Penelope’s betrayed handmaids into a chorus of disapproval, and gives us a believably irritating Helen of Troy.

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