They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but surely you should be able to judge it by its title? Titles are so definitive, so inseparable from a book’s very soul, that it’s hard to imagine any author leaving it to the last minute – or allowing someone else to decide for them – but it happens far more often that you might think. In fact, it’s fascinating how fluid the titles of classic books prove to be. Catch-22 seems irresistibly catchy now, but its original title was actually Catch-18. And if George Orwell had had his way 1984 would never have been such a portentous year (Orwell’s first choice for the book was The Last Man in Europe). In fact, the titles an author – or their publisher – rejects can often be as revealing about the writing process as the one they eventually end up with, so here’s my top ten books that were originally known by another name entirely…
1 Bleak House and Tom-All-Alone’s
I’m starting this list with Bleak House for the obvious reason that it’s Dickens’ great novel that inspired my own book, Tom-All-Alone’s. I chose that title because it was one of quite a long list that Dickens originally contemplated using, and since my book is in part an ‘alternative’ Bleak House it seemed only right to use one of Dickens’ own alternative titles. If you’ve read Bleak House, you’ll know that Tom-All-Alone’s is the slum at the heart of the novel, which Dickens makes into a symbol of all that is wrong with Victorian society. It’s also where many of the secrets of his novel are – quite literally – buried, which made it a perfect title for my own murder mystery, which runs parallel with Dickens’ own.
2 Frankenstein and Prometheus Unchained
The subtitle for Mary Shelley’s iconic horror story is ‘The Modern Prometheus’, but she originally considered calling the book itself Prometheus Unchained. The figure of Prometheus offers a powerful parallel with Victor Frankenstein – just as Prometheus disobeys the gods by stealing the ‘essential fire’ from heaven, so Frankenstein over-reaches himself by taking on God-like powers and daring to create life itself. My book A Treacherous Likeness, is inspired by the lives of Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and recreates that famous summer in Switzerland when Frankenstein was conceived.
3 Dracula and The Un-Dead
Dracula must be one of the most evocative one-word titles in all literature, so it’s fascinating to discover that the original contract for the book refers to it as The Un-Dead, and that the Count himself only gained that name quite late on in the process – he’s referred to in Bram Stoker’s notes as ‘Count Wampyr’. Fascinating also, that the two great horror novels in this list both gain so much of their power because they’re names, rather than another title format.
4 Pride & Prejudice and First Impressions
Jane Austen’s great masterpiece was originally submitted to the publisher Thomas Cadell as First Impressions, only to be rejected by return of post. She then spent over 15 years re—working the book, and it was finally accepted and published in 1813. Austen seems to have been particularly ambivalent about her titles – Northanger Abbey started life as Susan, Sense & Sensibility was originally entitled Elinor & Marianne, and she was considering The Elliots for Persuasion. Her family probably chose the latter after her death. Only Emma and Mansfield Park (the inspiration for my own first book) seem to have had those titles from the start.
5 The Mill on the Floss and Sister Maggie
I confess at once that The Mill is one of my least favourite George Eliot novels – I just can’t forgive her resorting to a deus ex machina ending because she’s got her plot into such a tangle she can’t write herself out of it. That said, the character of Maggie Tulliver is a wonderful tour de force, and Maggie’s relationship with her brother beautifully and painfully evoked. Eliot submitted the novel to her publisher John Blackwood as Sister Maggie, but while he loved the book, he loathed the title. Eliot’s lover, George Henry Lewes, then suggested The House of Tulliver but it was Blackwood who eventually chose The Mill on the Floss, deeming it more ‘poetical’.
6 Lady Chatterley’s Lover and John Thomas and Lady Jane
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had a problematic history, both before and (famously) after it was published. Lawrence wrote several different versions of the same story under different titles, one of which was John Thomas and Lady Jane. Apparently that title started out as a joke by one of his friends, as an ironic reference to the book’s obsession with sex, but Lawrence obviously liked it because in March 1928 he wrote to another friend saying “I want to call it ‘John Thomas and Lady Jane’… but have to submit to put this as a sub-title, and continue with Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the publisher’s sake.’ The novel’s eventual title may have been more staid, but that did nothing to prevent the storm of scandal that was to engulf it.
7 The Great Gatsby and Trimalchio in West Egg (among others)
F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly in the running for having both the longest list of alternative titles, and, frankly, some of the worst. Those he considered for The Great Gatsby included Trimalchio in West Egg (the one he seems to have preferred), Incident at West Egg, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, On the Road to West Egg, Gold-hatted Gatsby, The High-bouncing Lover, Under the Red, White and Blue, and Trimalchio (a rather highbrow allusion to a character in a satirical ancient Roman work, who is famous for his ostentatious parties). Apparently Fitzgerald’s editor was uneasy about such an abstruse classical reference, and was also wary of including an odd made-up place name like ‘West Egg’ in the book’s title, so Fitzgerald was forced to accept The Great Gatsby, a title he considered to be weak, ‘because there’s no evidence even ironically to [Gatsby’s] greatness or lack of it’.
8 War and Peace and All’s Well That Ends Well
Before you ask – I haven’t mixed up my Tolstoy with my Shakespeare: hard as it is to believe, Tolstoy did originally intend to publish his huge and serious novel about 19th century Tsarist Russia under the same light-hearted title as one of Shakespeare’s plays. And if that weren’t incongruous enough, Tolstoy actually disliked Shakespeare, and wrote a long essay on King Lear in which he claims Shakespeare cannot be recognised as even an average author, and says his writing inspired in him nothing but an ‘irresistible repulsion and tedium’. Given the immense length of War and Peace one might accuse him of calling the kettle black there, but there’s no question that the title Tolstoy finally settled on does better justice to his book.
9 The Good Soldier and The Saddest Story
This is a topical one, given the lavish new production of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End currently airing on the BBC. Ford wanted to call his novel The Saddest Story, and offered The Good Soldier to John Lane, his publisher, as an ironic alternative: “’The Saddest Story’ – I say it in all humility – is about the best book you ever published and the title is about the best title. Still I make it a principle never to interfere with my publisher… Why not call the book ‘The Roaring Joke’? Or call it anything you like, or perhaps it would be better to call it ‘A Good Soldier’ – that might do.” But Lane considered that The Saddest Story would be a disastrous choice for a book to be published in the midst of the Great War, and took Ford at his word. Ford later claimed that the first he knew of it was when the actual book appeared under that title, to his horror, some six months later.
10 Jude the Obscure and The Simpletons (among others)
Jude the Obscure was originally published in 1895. Thomas Hardy considered several different titles in the course of its composition, and it went under different ones when it appeared in serial form, and in the US. This reflected in part some of Thomas Hardy’s own difficulties with both the subject-matter and theme of the book. Some of his alternative titles focus only on the central character (like The Dreamer), while others bring in the novel’s complex female protagonist Sue Bridehead (The Simpletons, Hearts Insurgent). The one we have now is in part a nod to the Victorian convention of having the main character’s name in the title of a novel, but it also challenges that convention by adding the deliberately provocative phrase ‘the Obscure’. The book was savaged by the critics, with one reviewer calling it ‘Jude the Obscene’. Hardy was never to write another novel again.
This piece was originally written for UntitledBooks.com in 2012