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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: 'Reader, I Married Him'

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
Edited by Tracy Chevalier
Literary fiction
March 2016
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062447098


Perhaps it's a reflection of this summer of anger and fear, perhaps it's a yearning to return to a beloved book, but there are occasions when riffs on a known story provide a rewarding reading experience.

That has been the case with Reader, I Married Him. It's a collection of stories edited by Tracy Chevalier, all based on that famous line from Jane Eyre. Written by a wealth of modern female authors, the stories are far more varied than one might first suspect. Part of this may well be because the idea is not to ruminate on Jane, but instead to take that pronouncement of hers, that she married Mr. Rochester and that she directly addressed her reader, and run with it.

The variety is implicit in Chevalier's forward:

"Reader, I married him" is Jane's defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story. It is not, "Reader, he married me" -- as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even, "Reader, we married." Instead Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

The choice of a variety of narrators with a corresponding variety of results shows the beauty of Chevalier's choice in determining the focus of the anthology, as well as the beauty and strength of the source material. There is not a single story here that takes away from the power of Jane Eyre's narrative, even the iconclastic stories. They have a power of their own without taking away from the original, something that is at odds with The Wide Sargasso Sea, the Jean Rhys novel about Rochester's first doomed wife.

Among the women writing about this declaration of the determination to choose one's mate are Tessa Hadley, Jane Gardam, Emma Donoghue, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak, Evie Wyld, Salley Vickers, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, Nadifa Mohamed and Namwali Serpell.

The mates chosen by their narrators and protagonists range from a mother's lover to a surly neighbor, from a succession of suitors to a favorite companion. Some clearly have happy endings while others lead to heartache, resignation or even a possible victim of gaslighting.

One reason Jane Eyre endures is the strength of the heroine. She is plain, poor and mistreated by her relatives and the school where she was sent. Her only friend is murdered by the cruelty of their so-called protectors. Yet she perseveres and breaks free, choosing not to stay in familiar straits but to get a job on her own with unknown people.

Once at Thornfield, she makes her own way, endearing herself to the people who matter most, in a most unconventional household. When she again has the choice to stay in a familiar setting with less than what anyone deserves, she again leaves. And when she receives St. John's attention, she hears the voice of the one she has chosen and returns to Mr. Rochester.

Although these stories do not all follow this path, they do demonstrate the ups and downs of a main character who does not want to settle for second best, whether that's what happens or not, and whether they live happily ever after or not.

Charlotte Bronte's life failed to follow the path established by her heroine, but she had some things in common with Jane. She fell in love with a married man, Constantin Heger, husband of the headmistress of the school where she worked in Brussels. Charlotte, too, was plain but inside was not a mouse.

As Claire Harman notes in the prologue of her biography, Charlotte Bronte, A Fiery Heart:

...Charlotte was also struggling with the larger issue of how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings -- whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny -- in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination? How could she live with the painful "consciousness of faculties unexercised" that had moved her to go abroad in the first place, and that she recognised, from the example of her equally brilliant siblings, not as some sort of freakishness, but as an intimation of the sublime?

Although opportunities for women have, to some extent, changed since her days, some things do not change. It is that recognition that has fired the imaginations of the authors in Reader, I Married Him.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

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