‘She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of her people,’ Jane Austen’s nephew wrote in his Memoir of his aunt.
In this traditionary way we learned that Miss Steele never succeeded in catching the Doctor; that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philips’ clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton; that the ‘considerable sum’ Mrs Norris gave William Price was one pound; that Mr Woodhouse survived his daughter’s marriage, and kept her and Mr Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word ‘pardon’. Of the good people in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion we know nothing more than what is written; for before those works were published their author had been taken away from us, and all such amusing communications had ceased for ever.
In the days before Hollywood sequels Jane Austen enthralled her young relations by telling them what every reader wants to know: what happens after the book’s last page, or play’s last scene? It’s unusual to have so close a glimpse of the offstage author spinning consequences (and since Austen was only entertaining her family, it’s far from sure that she would have written up the story in quite this way; she was not at all averse to teasing the earnest young nephew who wrote up this account). But the desire for a sequel is part of the impulse to hear stories and to tell them, the desire that they never come to a definitive end. Shakespeare gratifies this curiosity to a certain extent in his history plays, both English and Roman, but he, like Austen and any other talented portrayer of character, leaves much unresolved and open to speculation. Do Beatrice and Benedick make a go of it after their marriage, or will their talent for mutual truth-telling do them in? Does Iago hold by his vow of silence, or will the magnificos ‘induce’ him to speak and put him on trial? What’s the fate of Caliban?
The 18th century went through a phase of ‘improving’ the imperfect Shakespeare, as for example in Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, which allowed Cordelia not only to survive but to marry Edgar – a much more ‘satisfying’ result. And the 19th century produced one of my favourite ‘prequels’, Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, which offered the Victorian reader a chance to make the acquaintance of the infant Rosalind, Portia the toddler and the pre-pubescent Lady Macbeth.
But extensive as the ‘improvements’ and revisions and adaptations of Shakespeare have been, from Tate to Aimé Césaire and Tom Stoppard, they have not been carried out in recent years with the same pointed zeal as have the sequels to Austen. In the 20th century dozens of sequels, from Margaret Dashwood, or Interference (a sequel to Sense and Sensibility by Edith Charlotte Brown, 1929) to Consequence, or Whatever Became of Charlotte Lucas (Elizabeth Newark, 1997) and Desire & Duty: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (Ted Bader and Marilyn Bader, 1997) have appeared in print. The further adventures of Isabella Thorpe, Mrs Rushworth and even the family of Mr Collins; the events of Pride and Prejudice told from Mr Darcy’s point of view; the events of Mansfield Park as seen by a maidservant; a play about Anne De Bourgh’s wedding – no minor character or plot line is left unturned. Austenians not only buy and read these books, they maintain a lively conversation, in person and online, about sequels, continuations, adaptations and completions.
‘The sequel,’ Gérard Genette wrote in Palimpsests, ‘differs from a continuation in that it continues a work not in order to bring it to a close but, on the contrary, in order to take it beyond what was initially considered to be its ending. The motive is generally a desire to capitalise on a first or even a second success.’ Genette distinguishes between the ‘allographic sequel’, written by a ‘shrewd inheritor’, who, driven in part by commercial motives, produces ‘interminable sequels to adventures that were terminated over and over again’, and the ‘autographic sequel’, which is not an imitation but a prolongation – like Walter Scott’s or James Fenimore Cooper’s novel cycles, or Balzac’s Human Comedy. Both types are tied to market forces.
Collections like To Be Continued: An Annotated Guide to Sequels (1995) and The Whole Story: 3000 Years of Sequels and Sequences (1996) attest to the present-day fascination with the sequel form and, not unexpectedly, the film sequel has generated its own little library, from Haven’t I Seen You somewhere before? Remakes, Sequels and Series in Motion Pictures, Videos and Television, 1896-1990 (1992) to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes (1998). Books like Dirty Dancing with Wolves: And Other Movie Sequels that never Made It off the Drawing Board (1992) take note of the comic nature of sequelmania; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Functionally, the sequel is a good model of what Freud, describing the activities of the psyche, calls ‘secondary revision’, one of the key elements in the construction of dreams – the rearrangement of the dream-thoughts into an intelligible and apparently consistent scenario that ‘makes sense’. As Havelock Ellis jauntily personifies the process, ‘Sleeping Consciousness we may even imagine as saying to itself in effect: “Here comes our master, Waking Consciousness, who attaches such mighty importance to reason and logic and so forth. Quick! Gather things up, put them in order – any order will do – before he enters to take possession.”’ In essence, secondary revision is a kind of mental censorship – Freud compares it to the way the mind corrects misprints and typographical errors, so that we ‘have the illusion that what we are reading is correct’.
In a similar way the sequel ‘corrects’ and amplifies, gratifying a desire not only for continuation but also for happy endings. Thus Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1992) sends Scarlett and her children to Ireland, where she meets up with Rhett Butler, whose wife has conveniently died, and falls (back) into his arms.
There is a paradox implicit in the very concept of the sequel. In experiential terms, a sequel is a highly conservative genre that supplies the comfort of familiarity together with the small frisson of difference. Publishers, film studios and TV executives love sequels, since they seem to guarantee a ready-made audience. A glance at the New York Times bestseller list at the time of writing shows one sequel at the top of the list (the further adventures of Hannibal the Cannibal in Thomas Harris’s continuation of The Silence of the Lambs – a ‘second helping’, quipped one reviewer archly) and at least three more sequels and a prequel (predictably, the book version of Star Wars, Episode I) among the contenders. One of the sequels is a children’s book, one of the genres most prone to the sequel form. Another (Encore Provence) takes pains to announce its sequel-status in its title.
In theoretical terms, however, the sequel is a more adventurous if not radical departure from the expectation of closure and the boundedness of the text; thus it can be connected with the other ‘paratextual’ inquiries into borders, frames, glosses, titles, footnotes, prefaces and dust-jackets.
It didn’t take the advent of Post-Modernism – or, for that matter, Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – to make the point that the ‘second’ could sometimes really be ‘first’. We could put the blame on Horace, who in his Ars Poetica enjoined the poet to hasten into the midst of things, and not ‘begin the Trojan War by telling of the twin eggs’ – the birth of Helen from the coupling of Leda and Zeus. A modern-day prequel would, precisely, go back to that dramatic moment – as Yeats did in his retelling and remaking of the myth: ‘A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.’ Virgil wrote the sequel, Spenser and Milton sequels to the sequel, Wordsworth the sequel to them, Joyce a new version of the old story … the rest, as they say, is history. In this case, literary history. The sequel and prequel are not anomalies but fundamental elements in the literary canon – as they were, indeed, in classical times.
Yet in a literary-critical era that glories in prefixes like post-, pre-, early and new (Post-Structuralism, the pre-novel novel, early modern culture, New Historicism) and that has for decades focused on the margins rather than the centre, the sequel (and its near relation, the prequel) seems in a way the perfect topic for a rigorous, and pleasurable, unpacking. Recent work on the relationship of copy to original, speech to writing and manuscript to print has nicely troubled the question of priority, precedence and origin.
Where critics of a few years ago wrote books that addressed – and complicated – our ideas about Beginnings and The Sense of an Ending, their successors have increasingly been fascinated by margins, footnotes, glosses and the process of editing as it alters the ‘original’ text. ‘Originality’ to the Renaissance meant ‘going back to origins’, not warbling your native woodnotes wild. It was only with Edward Young’s 18th-century Conjectures on Original Composition that the emphasis on novelty became linked, in a way many moderns find axiomatic, with a creativity that supposedly owed little to imitation and the great models of the past. But canon formation as we know it might well be regarded as the quest for the perfect sequel.
Way back in 1973 – it seems eons ago in the chronicles of literary theory – Harold Bloom argued in The Anxiety of Influence that ‘strong poets’ inevitably resist the priority of their literary predecessors, but, or and, that writing in the wake of others, paradoxically, did wonders for the originality of their work: ‘Poetic influence need not make poets less original; as often it makes them more original, though not therefore necessarily better.’ Competition between later poet and ‘precursor’ was inevitable; misinterpretation (‘in their poems’) was the way strong later poets dealt with the Oedipal father who both blocked and showed the way (Coleridge with Milton, Milton with Spenser, Tennyson with Keats). ‘A poet antithetically “completes” his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.’ The Bloom of 1973, who blithely dedicated his most important work of literary theory to his own strong precursor, William Wimsatt, seems curiously at odds with today’s Bloom, who will not go gently into the role of father rather than son. But this is perhaps less curious than inevitable, according to the logic of his own argument. Bloom has become, willy-nilly, the precursor of a whole generation of critics whose own coinages and ‘swerves’ he declines to acknowledge as legitimate progeny, but rather condemns as ‘resentment’.
More recently, the question of originality and essence has been articulated by Judith Butler in terms that combine philosophy and the history of sexuality. Butler’s assertion that ‘gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of “the original” … reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the original’ is a passage frequently quoted by gender scholars interested in the ‘constructedness’ of heterosexuality, but it is not always fully appreciated for its powerful insight into literary history.
Sometimes the ‘sequel’ radically revises the ‘original’ by the very act of coming second. Thus – to take a deliberately tendentious example – one version of the set of scriptures known to Jews as the Bible is to Christians known as the ‘Old Testament’ (compiled from the 13th to the first century BC). The ‘New Testament’, (probably written in the first century AD but surviving only in manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries) has been read as the embodiment of God’s covenant with man – set forth in the ‘Old Testament’ – in the coming of Jesus Christ. The NT purports to complete the OT, thus rendering the Hebrew Bible retrospectively ‘incomplete’ from the Christian point of view. Typology – the study of persons, objects and events in Old Testament history, prefiguring ‘some person or thing revealed in the new dispensation’ – essentially regarded what was past as prologue, a set of signs predicting their own fulfilment. The word Bible has thus come to mean, in countries in which Christians are in the majority, the combination of Old and New Testaments. The ‘sequel’ here performs an act of theological and textual legerdemain, not only ‘completing’ the previous text but – in doing so – declaring the prior text to be ‘incomplete’, in effect the ‘prequel’ to the revealed word.
The Biblical example is especially striking, but what we might call the sequel-effect always functions in this way, making the reader or audience rethink the various meanings of the work. As Michael Zeitlin notes in an essay on the ‘Post-Modern sequel’ in Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel, ‘a text conventionally defined as a “sequel” can work a transformative effect upon its precursor, which thereby becomes derivative, secondary, subsequent.’ Part Two is a collection of literary-critical essays on ‘the phenomenon of secondary narrative’ with attention to authors from Homer, Chaucer and Charlotte Yonge to Donald Barthelme and John Barth. A number of the contributors focus on 18th-century fiction, others on 20th-century film, two places where one might most readily expect to find evidence of sequelmania. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s self-fulfilling prophecy in The Terminator, ‘I’ll be back,’ used as the title for one of the essays here (by Lianne McLarty), hovers over the sequel as – always – something between a promise and a threat.
This is a highly competent and readable collection that seems to belong to the genre of ‘conference volume’, the collected, selected and edited proceedings of an academic conference or ‘call for papers’ on a theme. Anthologies of this sort can be useful in framing a question, and this one is no exception. Alexander Leggatt notes that the sequel was a key element in the commercial success of the Elizabethan theatre, and offers an appealing reading of the second parts of Tamburlaine the Great and Henry IV. As characters who determinedly resist closure, Tamburlaine and Falstaff, he observes, are ideal subjects for a sequel. In an essay on 18th-century women writers, Betty Schellenberg sets out the full range of sequel types: the continuation of a charismatic protagonist’s story beyond its original closure, the second-generation narrative, the ‘prequel’, and the collection of sentiments or letters supposedly written by characters from a novel. In ‘Homer and the Beginning of the Sequel’, Ingrid E. Holmberg reminds us that the Odyssey and Iliad emerge from an archaic tradition in which the prequels and sequels are already known. June Sturrock, in a reading of the 19th-century novelist Charlotte Yonge, demonstrates the way in which shifting public taste affected the writing of popular fiction, transmuting the genre of a ‘domestic fiction’ original into a ‘sensation novel’ sequel. Lianne McLarty observes that movie sequels ‘recondition’ old theories of heroic masculinity, displacing images of aggression and oppression onto women and racial minorities. Paul Budra suggests that the ‘Post-Modern’ element in recent horror films (their ‘very absence of thresholds’ and ‘loss of closure’) is analogous to the impulse of the genre to generate sequels, from the Friday the 13th films to Evil Dead II. Zeitlin argues that ‘the original or source text – held to constitute the basis of its sequel’ – is in fact nothing but ‘the sequel of another prior text, which is itself the shadow or echo of ones prior still’. Post-Modern this may be, but it also smells a lot like literary history – at least literary history as it was taught in the middle of this century, when Modernist rewritings of the classics (Ulysses, Eliot’s bits and pieces of Spenser and Dante) often served as entry points to new readers. What is Post-Modern here is Zeitlin’s sense (following Lyotard, Jameson and Baudrillard) that this literary enfilade produces a ‘bottomless hierarchy of texts … an intertextual hyperspace, borderless, sourceless and unmappable’.
Yet two problems haunt this collection of essays – one, we might say, related to its own status as a sequel, the other to its status as an anthology. It is a familiar kind of backhanded compliment for a strong critic to be taken to task for a sentiment that may seem only an incidental remark in his or her work. In this case the irritant appears to have been a brief passage embedded in the middle of Masquerade and Civilisation, Terry Castle’s ground-breaking book on the carnivalesque in 18th-century fiction, published in 1986. No fewer than five times in Part Two the contributors lash out at Castle’s intelligent observation that ‘sequels are always disappointing’ because they are offshoots of the ‘bestseller syndrome’, attempts within a capitalist economy to ‘profit further from a previous work that has had exceptional commercial success’. Castle calls these generative works ‘charismatic texts’, and gives Robinson Crusoe and the first Pamela as examples.
‘The readers of sequels,’ she says, ‘are motivated by a deep unconscious nostalgia for a past reading pleasure,’ and ‘the producers of sequels have always recognised and tried to exploit this subliminal desire for repetition.’ The problem is that ‘the sequel cannot be the same’ as the original text, and that readers cherish two impossible hopes in one: ‘that the sequel be different, but also exactly the same’. This is the best kind of psychoanalytic cultural analysis, taking into consideration, with judicious balance, the economic and psychic motivations of authors, publishers and readers. Any quick mental checklist of literary and cinematic sequels, from Henry IV Part 2 to Terminator 2, will suggest that Castle’s views are borne out – which doesn’t mean that sequels don’t give pleasure; they do. But – or and – the pleasure they give is very much the pleasure of repetition and nostalgia: something familiar, and something lost. For loss – or the memory trace that comes with the sense of something lacking – is itself, in this cultural realm, a kind of pleasure.
Castle’s (to me) blameless interpretation of the way sequels work comes in for a chorus of blame from several authors in this volume. One calls her ‘dismissive’, another claims that she shows ‘disdain’ for the motives of commercial publishing and ‘unfairly belittles’ the ‘real market conditions of the publishing house’. A third contributor begins her essay by attempting to refute ‘the idea that “sequels are always disappointing”’, and then goes on to slam ‘platitudes about the disappointment of sequels’ in defence of the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope. A fourth, citing the same passage, asks ‘disappointing for whom?’, while proceeding to explain that the ‘general reading public’ has been eager to ‘gobble up’ sequels and spin-offs to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The introduction asserts that ‘Castle’s Gothic explanation of the sequel’, by combining an account of the desire for repetition and the profit motive, ‘ultimately obscures the very analysis of literary production and reader response which it initially appears to offer.’
Why so hot? the reader wants to know. What is it about Castle’s two-page account that has touched so raw a nerve?
Without being over ingenious it seems possible to say that what’s eating the authors of some of these solid and thoughtful essays is that they are playing ‘sequel’ to Castle’s prior – and more ‘charismatic’ – articulation. It’s that Castle is, in the main, right, rather than that she’s wrong, which constitutes the problem. As a result, in order to make space for new arguments on the question, they have to prove that she has ‘oversimplified’, ‘assumed’ or ‘simply overlooked’ key issues about the sequel. The introduction to the volume (by Schellenberg, an 18th-century scholar with a special interest in the emerging professionalism of women writers, and Budra, who has published on Renaissance literature and 20th-century popular culture) thus frames its project as ‘to problematise, examine, elaborate on and nuance’ the assumptions they find in Castle’s brief remarks. As if in resistance to the scope of her speculations, the book as a whole downplays strong, overarching claims (from psychoanalysis; from economic imperatives) in favour of local particularity (the situation of the woman writer in the 18th century; the relationship of a popular 19th-century author to his literary agent). The result is a group of careful scholarly essays that does not – despite or because of the authors’ regular cross-references to each others’ essays ‘in this volume’ – go quite far enough in grappling with the fascinating conceptual and theoretical questions posed by the sequel as a cultural phenomenon as well as an effect of local history.
If this is a book of small rather than large claims, it may reflect the literary-critical moment we’re in, a cautious time of what might be called ‘historical correctness’. Grand narratives are out, and epicyclical adjustments are in. Yet the sequel, and what we might even call the logic of the sequel, invites and deserves a bolder approach. For in contemporary culture sequels are a symptom of the times, which seem ‘out of joint’ in ways undreamt of in Hamlet’s (much less Horatio’s) philosophy.
It is impossible to assess the sequel-effect without taking account of the swift dissemination of information or the increased breaching of the boundaries among categories like ‘literature’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘news’ that has characterised the end of this century. ‘Closure’, once a formal property of narrative, has become a soundbite nostrum for every televised and media-mediated tragedy, from the Oklahoma City bombings to the O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey and Louise Woodward cases. Mourners and survivors say they need it, readers and audiences claim they desire it, yet the files remain open. ‘Closure’ is not news. The mechanism of cultural Schadenfreude ensures the endless recycling of the story, with variations that keep it alive. The follow-up, the in-depth revisitation, the videotaped ‘instant replay’ in sporting events, have become part of the news story and the essential fodder of the ‘news magazine’.
Even the most tragic and affecting of news stories seem to be happening again, for the first time. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr was a signal for the revival of old Camelot tapes, the twinning of father and son, both handsome and charismatic, both early lost. The nickname John-John, never – it appears – actually used by the family, is an icon of the sequel-effect, even more than the very American suffix, ‘junior’. American politics, founded in resistance to monarchy, has always longed for ‘dynasties’, as the Bushes have discovered along with the Kennedys. (This may account in part for the current American mania for genealogical research, aided and abetted by the Internet.) George W. Bush, or ‘W’, as columnists have come to call him, is a sequel as well as a scion – and ‘compassionate conservatism’ is a self-declared revision of the ‘kinder, gentler’ mantra of his father. The Janus-like cultural logic of the sequel has sweetened memories of the Bush Administration while enhancing the aura of the son: ‘When you have a son who seems the likely favourite to be a Republican nominee and possibly the next President, it causes people to look for good things about his father,’ a Presidential historian told the New York Times. Another observer suggested that the revisionism could cut both ways: ‘the romanticism of his being the son of a former President just makes it that much more sexy.’
‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ Scott Fitzgerald wrote. Yet Fitzgerald himself, named for his father’s ancestor, Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star-Spangled Banner, acted out his own ambivalence towards American life in a way that belied the truth of his statement. He could just as easily have written its contrary, that in 20th-century America there are only second acts, and longings for a grand original.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.