I recently had to explain who Fred Astaire was. It made me realize that fame, no matter how great, is truly fleeting. And that being remembered past your lifetime (or another generation) is actually very, very rare.
Which brings me to this blog post. There are exceptions to the above rule, and here are three of them. Agatha Christie, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
I have written about my Agatha Christie influences. She was the topic of my master’s thesis. I know many of her stories so well that any changes in their plots for some of the more recent television adaptations make me scream inside. (Dame Agatha doesn’t need plotting help.) She died in 1976–35 years ago–and still remains published. There is a major mystery writing award named for her–the Agatha. A series of computer games have been built around her stories.
Jane Austen is enjoying a tremendous resurgence over these past twenty years. I suspect she never went out of favor, but adaptations in film and on television abound. (My Pride and Prejudice annual viewing is being scheduled for February.) Two of her novels have been mashed up with zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and sea creatures (Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters). Death Comes to Pemberley, a mystery mashup of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice characters with the craft of PD James, is my Christmas present to myself.
And then there is Dickens. How many Christmas Carol versions did you see this season? Last December I blogged every day, discussing a different version. This month I saw two stage adaptations–one at the North Shore Music Theatre and one at the Hanover Theatre. And, as always, I will reread the original before the season is over.
So why do these three storytellers survive generations while their contemporaries are forgotten? I have three theories on this.
- They are good storytellers. Though their language reflects their time, and there is a historical frame around them that needs to be acknowledged to a degree, their stories hold up.
- Their characters speak to human truths that are timeless. Christie’s Miss Marple uses her neighbors in St. Mary Mead to understand and explain all human behavior. In Austen, Charlotte Lucas settles for a husband because she is afraid no one else will come along. Dickens’s Scrooge is driven by greed, and fear. While many of these characters are drawn with a broad brush, contemporary readers can fill in some of those characteristics with information from their time, making the characters feel more relevant.
- Austen, Dickens and Christie (Dickens and Christie especially) wrote to entertain the masses. And that made their storytelling craft accessible. Themes include love, jealousy, revenge, greed. Readers had someone to hate, and someone else to root for. And while all three had contemporaries with greater skill, it is their work that survives and is still widelyread.
While my goal as a writer is not to be remembered forever, I do think that pondering the longevity of some careers is an opportunity to think about my own craft. Can I make my characters memorable while at the same time keeping them universal? How can I make sure my themes don’t get muddled? And how can I get out of my own way while telling my stories? Lots to think about as we head into this new year.
And, by the way, this is Fred Astaire (with Cyd Charisse in Bandwagon)