Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t just on the TIME 100; it’s one of 25 books to appear on that list, the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, and the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s rival list. (Others include 1984, An American Tragedy, Lolita, and The Great Gatsby, all of which are also in The Novel 100, as well as another recent read for me, All the King’s Men.) What makes Wide Sargasso Sea unusual for any of these lists is its genre: It’s a prequel to a classic novel written by someone else – Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance, Jane Eyre .
Rhys (née Ella Williams) apparently connected with a minor and almost stock character in Brontë’s book, Antoinette Bertha Cosway. Rhys was also a Caribbean-born woman sent to England at the brink of adulthood, only to find her hopes of a paradisiacal England like the one she found in literature dashed by a change in fortune, the death of her father, forcing her to abandon her studies and find work. She was haunted by Antoinette’s character, saying, “I was convinced that Charlotte Brontë must have had something against the West Indies, and I was angry about it.” So she wrote.
The prequel comprises three sections, with the third just a short look at Antoinette’s life in England. The first two depict her childhood with a mother who is going insane (although Rhys leaves it vague whether it’s due to genetics or circumstance) and then her somewhat rushed marriage to a confident young Englishman who is seduced by Antoinette’s beauty as well as by her substantial dowry, an inheritance from her mother’s second husband. Antoinette herself is anxious, depressed, and submissive, looking for some vein of independence but finding herself always chained to the people and places around her.
Wide Sargasso Sea is short and its main theme is straightforward – Rhys emphasizes the imbalance she sees in interpersonal relationships, primarily romantic ones, with parallels in master/slave relationships. It is almost a feminist tract in response to the Victorian sensibility of Brontë’s work, although Jane herself was a strong character with an independent streak; think of it more as Rhys’ response to Brontë’s treatment of Antoinette (known as Bertha in Jane Eyre) as a helpless creature, more her husband’s ward than wife. Rhys also employs one of the more obvious symbols (fire) I’ve come across in any literary work, one that would be a great example for teaching literature students about symbolism and how it can be integrated into a novel in a way that is unobtrusive yet still powerful.
As an exploration of an underdeveloped character in another novel, Wide Sargasso Sea is profound and thought-provoking, opening the door to broader questions of how the dominant/submissive dynamic permeates many romantic relationships. Without Jane Eyre to hold it up, however, it’s an unfinished novella that trails off without a proper ending to its linear plot. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you certainly should, as it’s one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language and appears on The Novel 100, but also because it opens the door not just to Wide Sargasso Sea and to the amazing world introduced in Jasper Fforde’s hilarious book The Eyre Affair.
Speaking of lists, this book pushes me past the halfway point on the TIME 100 list, to 50 7/12, since I’m seven books into Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. Anyway, I hope you all have a safe, happy, and (most importantly) delicious Thanksgiving. If all goes well and I have time to take some pictures tomorrow, I’ll have some food pr0n on the site over the weekend.