THE REGENDER PROJECT: Billie Budd

First up, I want to apologise for the delay in officially releasing Billie Budd. I’d originally intended to post this blog last week, but in between gallivanting across New Zealand and unforeseen technical issues, I had to wait until today. The Book is now available for purchase from Amazon. I should also mention I’m experimenting with a new linking system, which should take you straight to the Amazon store appropriate for you region. Since I know a lot people maintain a US Amazon account, I’m not sure if this will end up being a benefit or a hindrance, so feel free to let me know which you prefer.

The original Billy Budd is a fascinating story even though it’s not as widely known as a classic these days. First published posthumously  in 1924 after its author, Herman Melville, died before completing it. It was a critical success upon its release, reaching the peak of its fame in the 1950’s and 60’s when it was adapted into a stage play, an opera, and a movie starring Peter Ustinov and Terence Stamp.

As a novel I’m particularly familiar with, Billy Budd was one of my first choices for regendering, becoming Billie Budd. Its original setting, a warship crewed exclusively by men, also made it particularly appealing for the project. But what really resonated with me, and what I think made it such a classic, was the moral dilemma central to the story. It’s not just a matter of right and wrong, but it also brings in the question of justice vs the letter of the law, particularly during times of war, along with trying best course of action in the context of a great conflict. I was pleased to see all these questions, which I feel are vital to the story, remained intact after regendering.

The Author’s Note, where I talk about the specific challenges I encountered when regendering this novel, doesn’t actually contain many spoilers. Still, I’ve hidden it just to be safe. I’m also experimenting with embedding the books, so you’ll be able to flick through a chapter or so to see if the story interests you enough to purchase.

Author’s Note:

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Billy Budd was a strange choice for inclusion since it’s not as well-known as Melville’s other work, Moby Dick. Technically it’s not even complete since it was published after his death from his notes. I hadn’t even heard of the novel before a few years ago when I encountered it during my studies. Then I came across it in two completely different subjects from two different universities.

While I enjoy the novel on its own merits due to its interesting plot and story, it is actually the setting that prompted me to select it for regendering. Even today, sailing tends to be a male dominated profession but back in the 19th century it was pretty much exclusively so. To me, regendering such a scenario represented the ultimate expression of the project.

Of course, it also led to quite a few complications beyond the ones I normally encountered during regendering. While the names weren’t any harder to regender, the fact the title of the novel is shared with the main character’s name gave me food for thought. I was tempted to change it slightly, to Billie, in order to reinforce the change in gender but given Billy can be used for a girl’s name, albeit uncommonly, I decided to stick to my guideline and leave it unchanged.

Where I encountered the biggest issues was in the terminology used throughout the book. Almost all the nautical terms used were male regendered, such as seaman or foretopman. These started to sound weird and awkward when referring to female characters, yet they are part of our history. In the end I decided to break the guidelines I had set and regender these terms. Partly it was to aid in readability but mostly to help create an image of what it might have been like on a ship with all female crew. It wasn’t a complete change, since I kept the tradition of referring to ships as females unchanged, as well as the big class of warships continuing to be called Men of War.

One of the interesting results of the regendering process was the change to one of the subtler elements of the novel. One reading of the novel suggests a homoeotic attraction on the part of Claggart towards Billy and it is his torment at the possibility that causes his antagonism. I’m not sure this carries over after the regendering.

Apart from that, the regendering of Billy Budd had a fascinating result. Perhaps what I found most interesting was how easy and natural it felt to have a ship of war with a completely female crew, led by a more than capable female captain whose qualifications for the job were never put into question due to her gender.

Addendum:
While I had originally published this novel under it’s original name, Billy Budd, I’ve decided changing the name slightly could be more effective. This was a result of my decision to change the protagonist’s name. At this point, it’s more of an experiment to see the effect of changing names more then necessary. I’d love to hear your feedback on what you think of the change.

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