I am a proud member of the Better World Books affiliate network – the ethical online bookshop. Please note that this post contains affiliate links.
Questioning the Canon is a new feature in which I hope to bring to light lesser-known books about a certain issue, which can be read alongside or instead of infamous ‘classics’.
The canon is defined as ‘a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which is effortfully pulling me through the endless terminology of my literature degree!
“Canon: a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study”
Essentially, you can think of the canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts. These songs are the most frequently listened to, but fans of obscure alternative groups have been questioning since the dawn of time – well, since the NOW CDs came out – whether they actually represent the best quality music. How often do you hear the phrase ‘that’s so mainstream’ used as a dismissal?
“You can think of the literary canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts!”
Recently the same phenomenon is taking place in literature. People are starting to discuss whether the authors we hold up as cultural icons – Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth – should be accompanied by previously marginalised writers. Our idea of what constitutes ‘great literature’ is becoming broader.
This can only be a good thing, as it means more diversity and social representation in what we read!
The Canon: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 1, 430, 817
Synopsis: Jane Eyre grows up as an orphan without a friend in the world, yet she maintains her resistance towards those who seek to oppress her. She manages to find work as a governess, but it is a lonely vocation and she cannot help wondering if the empty routine at Thornfield Hall is all that awaits her. That is, until the head of the house, Mr Rochester, returns and Jane is forced to reconcile duty with desire.
The Questioner: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 54, 115
Setting: West Indies
Synopsis: In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys images a prequel to Jane Eyre, centred on one of the novel’s marginal characters: Bertha Mason. Set in the sensuously beautiful islands of the West Indies, the story follows Bertha from her traumatic childhood to her ill-fated marriage. Who is Bertha Mason? What made her mad? And is there more to her story than Rochester reveals?
Questions Asked: Jane Eyre is often held up as a proto-feminist novel, and of course Bronte’s independent, quietly resolute heroine is an alluring character for modern female readers. Nevertheless, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys questions whether the other female characters are represented fairly, notably the mad Bertha Mason.
It is possible to interpret the descriptions of Bertha in Jane Eyre as racially stereotyped. By imagining her story, Rhys plunges readers into the dark history of colonial Britain and forces us to consider how far Rochester – and even Jane herself – are implicated in racial oppression.
Recommendation: Read both!
It is difficult to fully appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea without first having read Jane Eyre, so definitely read Charlotte Bronte’s novel first. However, Jean Rhys gives a fresh and sometimes shocking perspective on Jane Eyre that will make you consider this infamous novel much more deeply.
Buy Now on Better World Books:
Cover images courtesy of Goodreads.
Have you read either of these novels? Have an under-rated book that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!