The Hogarth Press was founded after Virginia and Leonard Woolf purchased a hand press, set it up in their dining room and named the resulting publishing company after their house in Richmond. They began this self-publishing venture in 1917 as a hobby that might ease Virginia’s anxiety and depression, but by the 1930s it had grown into a major literary house. ‘We get so absorbed we can’t stop,’ Virginia wrote to her sister. ‘I see that real printing will devour one’s entire life,’
Leonard ran it until his death after the war. By that time it had published over five hundred works, including Virginia’s own novels, the writings of friends such as Katherine Mansfield, the first edition of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the English language translations of all Sigmund Freud’s books. Hogarth Press was taken on by a variety of larger publishers, and continued to be quietly known for focusing on works of literary value.
In 2012, it was relaunched by Penguin, with a similar but specific mission; to publish reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plays in the modern novel form. Some of the most acclaimed and popular novelists of our time have been commissioned to write for the project and so far, six have delivered – Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Tracy Chevalier, Edward St Aubyn, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood. Each one of them has taken a single play and put a personal spin on the characters and narrative, while staying faithful to the original themes. Most have a witty, if not downright laugh-out-loud take on the original, something, no doubt, the Bard would have loved, but they’ve also used their fiction as an opportunity to fill in the psychological nuances of the plays, something normally left to the interpretation of an individual production.
Although this isn’t a new idea, and the six novels so far have been mostly acclaimed, there has been criticism from the press. When the first of the series came out, the Spectator’s Stuart Kelly asked ‘Why on earth did Jeanette Winterson agree to retell Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale?’ He suggested that The Gap of Time had lost the poetry of the original by moving this strangely mythic story to the financial crisis of 2008.
As the series developed, writers took hold of the idea and made it their own. To me, Margaret Atwood’s writing feels re-energised in her retelling – Hag-Seed is a high jinks of a novel. Set in a Canadian correctional institution and featuring Felix, its artist-in-residence, the book relates how the prisoners put on a public showing of The Tempest. But although Felix is working with hardened convicts, he may be the one with the most to hide. He’s planning to whip up a storm on the Canadian Minister of Heritage, who sacked him from his former position as festival artistic director. This book is full of deep irony, clever references to the original and a layered examination of the human condition. Rather like Shakespeare himself, Atwood manages to balance mayhem and hilarity with a compelling study of the play’s major themes…betrayal, revenge, power and control.
Just as witty and jolly is Tyler’s take on The Taming of the Shrew. The final monologue in this play has perplexed interpreters for centuries, so you have to take your hat off to Tyler for accepting the challenge. She is the perfect author for the attempt – no one is quite as eloquent around family discord and marital relationships as she is. Vinegar Girl is almost as much fun as Hag-Seed, but while Atwood seems to rise above herself in creating her novel, I did feel that Tyler had been manacled in trying to do justice to this play.
But don’t take my word for any of this. Why not dip into the series and see for yourself? And why not take a leaf, literally, out of these writer’s books, and have a go at writing a one-act play, a poem, flash fiction or short story based around the themes or characters of one of Shakespeare’s tales? After all, writers have been retelling originals since there were originals to retell – we don’t need ‘permission’ or a commissioned place on a project to rewrite long-loved stories. And what about utterly forgotten stories? They can be great inspiration for your fiction. Listen to the podcast, available until the middle of September, of Radio Four’s Open Book in which Neil Gaiman explains why forgotten 1927 classic Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees deserves a wider readership, and how Susanna Clarke took themes and ideas from this book for her own bestseller, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
Lud-in-the-mist by Hope Mirrlees is published in the UK by Victor Gollancz as Volume 11 in the Fantasy Masterworks series. (First published 1926; this edition 30 November 2000.)
Catch Open Book at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bf5036
Further information on the Hogarth Project at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/HSR/hogarth-shakespeare
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