LONDON — At first, all seemed to be going swell for the centenary celebrations of English writer Evelyn Waugh. The author's estate had approved several productions to coincide roughly with his Oct. 28 birthdate, among them Stephen Fry's adaptation of "Vile Bodies" (retitled "Bright Young Things") and a coming Andrew Davies film version of "Brideshead Revisited."
Waugh's legacy, it seemed, was secure. His books, ripe for a minirevival, would surely be revisited once attention was lavished on the attendant high-profile tie-ins.
What the estate hadn't counted on was someone gatecrashing their garden party. Michael Johnston, a former BBC commentator, has written an "unauthorized" Brideshead sequel, called "Brideshead Regained." Hoping to unveil his creation on Waugh's centenary, Mr. Johnston sent his finished manuscript to the Waugh estate.
As with other postscripts to beloved books, reactions have been mixed. The response from the keepers of Waugh's flame has been forthright - and not exactly genteel. "I received a letter from [grandson] Alexander Waugh, which said the following," says Mr. Johnston as he works through a grilled mackerel lunch in London's West End. He quotes from memory, " 'I have examined your ... scam called "Brideshead Regained" and loathed it. You are in breach of copyright and you are illiterate. Be warned.' Signed, Alexander Waugh."
Johnston laughs between bites of fish and then sighs. He had hoped to gain official approval from Waugh's heirs. Instead, the estate threatened him with a costly court injunction.
"I'm living on my pension now," he says, nodding to his wife, who smiles supportively. "I didn't wish to spend my life and life savings in court, so we settled with the estate."
Johnston agreed to sell only the 1,500 copies of his book - which he'd printed under his own press at the cost of $18,000 - and solely online. The other stipulations: no more print runs, no bookstore retail, and most especially, no copies could be sold in gift stores at Castle Howard or in the local village where the "Brideshead" TV miniseries was filmed. "The only thing they don't mention is public libraries," adds Johnston, noting with a small gleam of glee, "at least 80 libraries have bought a copy so far."
As a literary creation, "Brideshead Regained" has received mixed reviews. The novel follows newly appointed "official war artist" Charles Ryder into World War II as he paints DeGaulle and Churchill, as well as the Nazi death camps. It also reunites him, if briefly and unhappily, with the aristocratic Flyte family.
"Regained" is in good company when it comes to spinning variations on well-known works. "This is something that writers in earlier times did all the time," says Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Milton did it when he retold the Bible stories, Shakespeare did it, too. These writers are retelling stories that ... have a certain currency."
They may do it for money, love of the story, or, as in the case of the recent "Gone With the Wind" parody, "The Wind Done Gone," for political reasons.
"What they're doing is showing that telling one story means you're not telling others," says Mr. Gorra. "They're making us aware of untold stories."
Copyright law is clear on one thing - writers are entitled to their work during their lives, plus 70 years. "One of the rights embodied in having copyright is having the exclusive right to derivative material based on the original work," says Marc Rohr, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. "Derivative work ... transforms the work in some way or builds on the original," but, "this isn't quantitative, it's qualitative." Meaning, what offends one might not offend another.
Offense can change with time, as well, says Johnston. He encountered Waugh heir Alexander at a September gathering in the elder Waugh's honor. "He made a speech about how he approved of the significant changes the new movies are making to the books," says the writer. "He observed in his speech that I might find this relaxed attitude inconsistent with his letter to me, and then he moved down to me and said, 'Oh, one writes these letters. They're not to be taken seriously.' "