I’m sure lots of Books & the City readers will have been as excited as I am to hear that Harper Lee is going to publish a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Or is it a prequel? – she wrote it in the mid 1950s but it’s set 20 years after the events in the earlier book. Anyway, it’s sure to be an instant best-seller. And it got me wondering about other ‘one-hit wonders’ (which, of course, Harper Lee won’t be).
Emily Bronte undoubtedly would have written novels other than Wuthering Heights, had she not died of tuberculosis aged 30. She was a prolific writer of poems and fantasy though no manuscripts for another novel has been found.
Anna Sewell was an invalid while she wrote the classic novel Black Beauty, now regarded as a children’s book but originally intended to be read by those who worked with horses.
It was an instant hit and has remained popular to this day – in 2003 it was listed at no. 58 on the BBC’s Big Read but, sadly, Sewell died a year after its publication.
Gone with the Wind is still the best selling American novel of all time (and one of the most controversial). It was an instant success in 1936, and its author Margaret Mitchell was awarded the Pultizer Prize for fiction. Hollywood studios fought for the film rights and the search for the actress who would play Scarlett O’Hara was the stuff of legends. Few can deny that it’s a great read though many are put off by its more unpleasant aspects – the glorification of slavery and treatment of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Mitchell never wrote another book though, unlike Bronte and Sewell, she did live to see her one novel’s success before being killed in a road accident in 1949.
However, while Mitchell didn’t write a sequel, several others did. Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett took the heroine to Ireland while Rhett Butler’s People saw the events of Gone with the Wind from the point of view of its hero. More controversial was The Wind Done Gone which attempted to give a voice to the slave characters of the original novel and which the Margaret Mitchell estate attempted to block.
Another one-hit wonder whose book is perhaps better known now through its film adaptation than read is Doctor Zhivago, by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak who died only two years after its publication and thus didn’t see its worldwide success or indeed the film adaptation by David Lean.
Two bestsellers from 1997 have proved to be one-hit wonders…so far… Memoirs of a Geisha was a gloriously rich historical novel purporting to be the autobiography of a Japanese entertainer in the 1930s and 1940s, but in fact written by Arthur Golden who had an MA in Japanese history. It was filmed in 2005, but – if you’re reading this Arthur – we’re still waiting for the follow-up.
Most Booker Prize winners are established writers. An exception was the Indian writer Arundhati Roy who won for The God of Small Things, a fascinating semi-autobiographical novel about twins who are separated for twenty years. Since the book’s publication, Roy has engaged in political activism, involving herself with the campaigns for Kashmiri separatism and opposing the war in Afghanistan, but she has yet to write another novel.
You can borrow all these books – and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman in due course – from Westminster libraries, and research the writers in Contemporary Authors, a collection of literary criticism available by logging in with your Westminster library card number. Happy reading.