If you’d asked me what I’d expect to be working on five years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have said ‘I’ll be retelling Tess of the d’Urbervilles for children.’ I might have shuddered at the very idea of compressing a book I loved so much into 6,500 words. I’d have thought of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and worse, Bowdler!
But I’m in good company. Michael Rosen retold Romeo and Juliet, and recently Philip Pullman published his version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I knew the publishers of the Real Reads series from another connection, and sitting in their garden one day I gulped and said ‘I’d like to do one of those’ - and then wondered what I’d let myself in for.
When I looked at the books I began to see the point, and the skilful way these little books lead readers from the shallows into deeper, perhaps more satisfying waters. Gill Tavner, who tackled Dickens, Jane Austen and more greats for Real Reads, puts it this way:
‘I have long thought that there must be a way of making the qualities of ‘classics’ accessible to most readers, but I was unconvinced that abridging was the answer. As a mother of two young children, I have endured the pain of reading abridged fairy tales and Disney films. These often machine-gun the reader with a list of events. Rarely do they offer the reader an opportunity to develop interest in or appreciation of varied vocabulary, style or themes. Do abridged versions need to be like this? Surely there is a way to make an abridged version an enjoyable and enriching rather than simply informative reading experience? Surely this is an important distinction if we aim to nurture keen, confident readers?’
The format for Real Reads includes a list of the main characters, questions to follow up the story, a list of follow-up books, films and websites, the historical context of the book and some thoughts about what readers might find if they braved the whole thing. There are also some lovely illustrations. The books were originally intended for children aged about 8-11, but they sell well to readers of English as a Second Language, and to adults who want a way into difficult books - I’ve just ordered a copy of the Ramayana, for example, as I just can’t get into reading the whole thing.
I was lucky - I got to choose my writer and which books I’d like to do. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was the first, and perhaps the easiest. I had to retell the story in a way which makes it come alive, and with something of Hardy’s style. My usual writing voice is about as far away from Hardy’s as you could get, so it was quite a challenge.
But I learned a lot from the process. First, I learned to step a long way back from the story, not to immerse myself in it. What were the key themes, the journeys of the characters? What was essential? What made it live? Those are important questions to ask of any book.
Then I realised that I couldn’t go through chapter by chapter summing them up as I went. That would end up as a list of events, not a story. I had to put the book aside and tell Tess’s story from her humble beginnings to her tragic arrest for murder. And I had to think of Hardy’s feelings about Tess. He used a sub-title for the book - ‘A Pure Woman’. He clearly didn’t think Tess is to blame for what happens to her, but blamed a society with double standards. Angel Clare, who becomes Tess’s husband, has had an affair, but he leaves Tess when she admits to the same.
There were some tricky issues too - like the scene where Alec d’Urberville rapes Tess in the forest. How could I write that essential scene for a children’s book? Hardy isn’t explicit, but he’s clear enough. I watched all the films and TV series for some help - but the directors fudged the issue, or came down on one side or the other. Here’s how I did it:
'Alec got lost in the wood. Tess was exhausted, and he helped her to lie down on the ground and covered her with his coat, while he went off to find his bearings.
When he came back, she was asleep. Alec could just make out her face in the dark. He knelt beside her, his cheek next to hers. He could still see a tear on her face.
As her people would say, it was to be. This was the last they would see of the Tess who left home to try her fortune.
A chasm was to divide her from that former self.'
The last sentence is direct from Hardy’s book. The scene’s very close to his own.