The Woman Who Ran by Sam Baker
In my review of Alexander McCall Smith’s modernisation of Jane Austen’s Emma, I asked whether it was easier to watch a modern adaptation than to read a modernisation of a classic novel. I came to the conclusion that my discomfort with that novel probably had more to do with the narrative structuring of the modernisation than the genre of modernisation itself; the definitive proof of this came just over a week later as I sat down to read Sam Baker’s modernisation of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: The Woman Who Ran. This was an intriguing modernisation that doesn’t just update the source material, it adapts it to make a novel that is solid on its own terms as well as in relation to the original novel.
The Woman Who Ran is promoted as a psychological thriller, something in the vein of The Girl on the Train (which I haven’t read) and Gone Girl (which I also haven’t read). It’s probably pretty clear that I’m not that big a reader of psychological thrillers, but I do appreciate a well-written mystery and that is something The Woman Who Ran fulfills. This is an incredibly readable novel which effectively builds tension as it looks deeper into Helen’s psychological state and the circumstances of the fire which forms the catalyst for the narrative. In particular, I admired Baker’s use of flashbacks throughout the novel; she revealed Helen’s backstory naturally as Helen opens up gradually to Gil and battles the memory loss her PTSD has caused. I did feel that the ending was a little lacking, considering the amount of build-up Baker puts in before the final confrontation. However, I did think it was interesting that Baker still leaves us with the question of whether Helen actually saw what she thought she did in that final confrontation, or whether it was another symptom of her PTSD.
Baker mentions in her notes at the end of the novel that she wanted to show how things had changed for women since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (particularly with regards to mental health and domestic abuse) and what had remained the same. This came through really clearly when you take The Woman Who Ran as a modernisation; Baker deals sensitively with the issue of domestic violence, showing the improved support and resources available for victims since Anne Brontë’s time, whilst also showing that there is still a long way to go in this area. Helen’s family are devastated when she leaves Art, and even her closest friend, who had heard something of what was transpiring between the couple, assumes that it was just something that worked for their relationship. Baker uses the novel well to examine Brontë’s radical cry on behalf of domestic abuse victims and make her own cry for the modern context she writes into.
There are several big changes from Brontë’s original, but perhaps my favourite was the change to Gil Markham’s character. From being Helen’s love interest in the source text, Gil becomes an older, retired journalist; far from being motivated to uncover Helen’s past by his romantic interest, he is motivated by a journalist’s curiosity, unable to accept that he really has walked away from his profession. This leads to a realistic, uneasy alliance between himself and Helen, herself a photojournalist, as they piece together the parts of her memory she has lost.
I was reading this as my parents were both reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and this made me realise two things: firstly, that The Woman Who Ran could easily be read by someone who isn’t at all familiar with the source text; secondly, that it was making me really want to reread that source text. The mark of a good modernisation is surely one which doesn’t just hold its own as a text in itself but also makes you want to reread the original. I would recommend this novel as a really strong example of modernisation; you don’t need to have read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but if you haven’t you should do that anyway!