I think my favourite book of last year has to have been ‘Jane Eyre’ such an incredible read that every time I have seen a review of it or talked about it since I have wanted to open the book at page one and read again. Yet that said I am not the biggest fan of re-reading a book too close to the last time, a small issue I had with ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ last year, and so instead I thought I would try ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys which tells the tale of the first Mrs Rochester, though its also a brilliant read in its own right which I wasn’t really expecting.
‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is a novel of three parts and as it opens in part one we find ourselves in Jamaica in the 1830’s. Antoinette Cosway, now Mason, tells us the story of her youth from growing up with her mother and disabled brother several years after her father seemingly drank himself to death after the emancipation of the slaves – so he then leaves his family in the same state. Things change however when Antoinette’s mother meets Mr Mason, and Englishman of wealth who asks for her hand and restores the land, only the local community have other ideas and in a rebellious act burn their house down. From here things seem to deteriorate further with the death of her brother causing a madness in her mother soon Antoinette is sent to a convent. If you’re thinking I have given everything away then you would be wrong as this all happens in just part one which is a mere 40 pages.
The next narrator to take the helm is an unnamed English gentleman (though clearly it’s mean he is Rochester) who has recently married. As we read on we begin to recognise who is wife is and how he married her due to a mixture of her bewitching allure and also for the fortune she holds from the death of her steward, I think that’s the write expression I am sure I could be wrong. From here I shall say no more on the plot other than that our new narrator receives word that the wife he met may not quite have the history or the stability he is lead to believe and as the reader we follow on from there.
The thing that I loved the most about ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ was the writing. Jean Rhys manages to depict a steadying madness both through Antoinette’s first person narrative, which becomes more jumbled and slightly confused as she reflects on her youth and again later in the book, and through the observations people make of her. Jamaica is vividly drawn, I could smell the flowers and feel the heat and delight of the land as well as its darker sides which Rhys makes sure we enter on several occasions. Antoinette, or Bertha as she becomes, is a complex character and if you’re like me you will be left wondering if the madness was always there or whether circumstances and desperation could be the cause.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as all I had really heard about it was that it was a prequel of sorts to the classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Whilst this is in many ways true to simply say that would be to do Jean Rhys a disservice. This is a fantastic novel that you can read as a stand alone tale of a young woman born into hard circumstances, the decisions she has to make and the effect that this then has on her throughout her life. 8.5/10
I am now left wondering if I should maybe try some other prequels like Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’? There is of course the possibility of other off shoots like ‘The Eyre Affair’ which I have always been somewhat wary of – I am aware that with ‘Rebecca’ being one of my favourite reads that might seem rather silly as it’s sort of a twist on ‘Jane Eyre’ too. I am also left wanting to read many more of the novels of Jean Rhys, can you recommend which ones I should give a whirl? Or maybe I shouldn’t as I know she had vanished for some time before this novel was published.
I mentioned when earlier in the week when I discussed adaptations that I had been to see the musical ‘Wicked!’ again with The Converted One, my mother, my little sister and her best friend. Now many of you thought it was for the second time, it was actually the fifth!! Anyway it started me thinking about prequels, sequels and spin offs NOT written by the original author and this discussion has come up again a few times in the last week so I decided I should bring the discussion on here too. I hope you will all join in?
It was actually ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and therefore ‘Wicked’, as opposed to instant titles you might think of that have been spinned such as ‘Rebecca’ or indeed ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that got a conversation started on just this subject between myself and one of my fellow Green Carnation judges Nick Campbell when we were out at a book launch on Tuesday night. You see as a child I was rather obsessed with the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (and indeed ‘Return to Oz’ though I think people thought that film was rather uncool so maybe I shouldn’t admit to that) ask Granny Savidge Reads… I used to insist on watching it once a week apparently. It seemed that so is Nick and not just of the films but of the books. So I of course asked if he had read ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Maguire and ‘Was’ by Geoff Ryman (the answers were yes and no).
I personally loved ‘Wicked’ when I read it several years ago and it has indeed become one of my very favourite books because it took something I adored and turned it on its very head (making Elphaba a misunderstood witch who was actually best friends with Glinda at university in Shiz not far from Munchkinland. Interestingly though I was then really rather disappointed when I went onto read Gregory Maguire’s sequel to his ‘Oz’ spin off ‘Son of a Witch’ it didn’t cast the spell (pun intended) that I wanted it to once more. Maybe ‘A Lion Among Men’ will? I wonder if I would be such a fan of ‘Wicked’ if I had actually read the original Oz books or would I instead consider it some kind of barbaric sacrilege?
I mean most of the people I know who love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ think anything that is a spin off of that novel they hold in such high esteem is the work of Satan simply doesn’t cut the mustard no matter how good it is. The very fact that it is a spin off of from such a successful story is deemed an author cashing in or writing a book rather lazily to be honest (not my words a rather toned down watershed version of some of my friends actually). Is this the case or are their some gems out there they are simply being too snobbish to admit to? I mean look at ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys which has become rather an acclaimed novel and yet is a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’.
I applied the notion of prequels and sequels written by another author to my favourite book which is of course ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier. Whilst I have copies of Sally Beauman’s ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ and Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’ I have not touched either of them or really been tempted to and considering the latter is one of my favourite authors I am wondering if there is something in this. Can I simply not bear the idea of my favourite book being ruined by another great author who no matter how good or how hard they try simply cannot recreate the atmosphere Daphne did? I suppose I won’t know the answer till I try… but just having looked at them again, I got that same unsure feeling, so I don’t think I will know for quite some time.
Are there any prequels, sequels or spin offs by your favourite authors or the ones mentioned above that have really, really worked for you and managed to embody/channel the voice from the original? Have any ever been better than the original itself? Which prequels, sequels and spin off’s really should never have happened?