Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Number 94 on the Modern Library’s list is a novel I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never heard of: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It has a melodious title but a suspicious premise, purporting to be a prequel (as we might call it now) to the massively famous and iconic gothic novel known the world over and impressing generation after generation, Jane Eyre. The claim made by Wide Sargasso Sea was that it would tell the story of the mysterious third character of Jane Eyre, who is present but hardly human in that story, Rochester’s crazy wife in the attic.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that this novel delivers on its promise in a most enjoyable way. This novel is not up to the caliber of Jane Eyre, to be sure, though it is passionate and impressive. For one thing, it is a slender volume and written in the more straightforward, if not to say sparse, style of its own era instead of the florid prose of Brontë. It recreates a time long before that of its writing, before even the time of Jane Eyre’s writing, and carries an undertone of historical fiction, which instills an artificiality or at least a distance between the reader and the story. (Other old novels we continue to read may carry us back to long-ago times but do so with a feeling of immediacy. They are not “historical” novels but rather contemporary novels read 100 or more years after their writing. Read anything by Jane Austin, for example.) These are characteristics of the novel, not necessarily detriments, as it stands nicely on its own.
Rochester’s wife, known then as Antoinette Cosway, grew up on a colonialized island as a spirited and attractive young woman with some mother troubles. As depicted by Jean Rhys, she is a fully fleshed out character with a personality, a history, a day-to-day life, and most importantly a psychological make-up. How she got to the state of madness, how she became, instead of her own person, merely a tool, an impediment to someone else’s happiness, how she was given a new and comparatively ugly name, how she was transported from the idyllic setting of her upbringing to the harsh environment of her married life (and beyond) are all played out in this imaginative story.
It is not necessary to know Jane Eyre to be able to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea. Having read Wide Sargasso Sea, however, it is interesting to reread Jane Eyre (though really, any excuse will do) and intertwine the new dimensions of this character into that story. Bertha’s story becomes that much more frightening: here is a woman who lost her humanity and becomes imprisoned through other people’s agency, people who were supposed to protect her. She has gone mad because she lost control over her life and lost contact with everything she loves. Rhys succeeded in enriching a story that didn’t seem to need enriching. She also created a story that doesn’t need to be read as a derivative work. It is real unto itself.
Why, then, is this novel so little known? It made enough of an impression to be included as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by a panel of experts in literature but not enough to have made it into the collective consciousness of avid readers, or, for that matter, high school or college English classes. It is worth noting also that Jean Rhys is one of the mere handful of female writers who made the list, chosen from presumably the scores who wrote and published in the hundred years that passed between 1900 and 2000.
Without this list, I would not have known of the existence of this novel. Without my self-imposed challenge, I probably would have skipped it just based on its premise. Luckily, neither of those negatives came to pass.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.