It may not be entirely fair to refer to Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (WW Norton & Co.; reissuing January 25, 2016) as the first great work of fan fiction—it stands entirely on its own as a classic. But the “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which celebrated its 50th anniversary of publication this week, is the grandmamma of an entire genre that has spun some classic novels.
In case you missed it in English class, Wide Sargasso Sea answers one of the biggest questions from the pages of Jane Eyre—who was the woman in the attic and what drove her mad? Author Rhys wasn’t satisfied with Bronte’s explanation that all Creole women are crazy and instead spent nearly nine years writing a rich and complicated backstory for Antoinette Cosway who would come to be called Bertha by her husband, Mr. Rochester. Rhys captured the heat-choked tragedy of treating people like property.
To celebrate the occasion, here are some of our favorite prequels and/or literary fan fiction that have followed in the footsteps of Wide Sargasso Sea:
Finn (prequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) by Jon Clinch (Random House, 2007)
Critics were rapturous about the prequel to one of America’s greatest classics, which was no small feat. Clinch tells the story of Huck Finn’s father and the dark side of an America shaped by slavery and in doing so embroiders the classic with more depth and meaning.
Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, et al. by Gregory Maguire (Harper Collins)
I admit it, we’re wild about Maguire here at BookTrib. His retellings of classic fairy tales spawned yet another sub-genre and might count as prequels and the very best sort of fan fiction. Like Finn, Wicked and Maguire’s other retellings enhance the originals with greater depth and richer fictional lives.
50 Shades of Grey by EL James (Vintage, 2011)
The infamous erotic novel that we just can’t seem to escape started out as fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. James reworked her stories to omit the Twilight characters and make them her own, but of all of the books on this list 50 Shades has the strongest fan fiction roots. Of course, it has since taken on a life of its own and has been parodied by the Wayans in the movie 50 Shades of Black, perhaps the truest sign of transcending its origins.
For a peek at the original that started it all, here’s a clip from the 1993 movie.