Every time I review a short story collection, I always say I am not the biggest fan of them, but that is not actually true. During the time I have been writing here I have found a few marvellous collection that always become ‘one of the best books of…’. This time Hayley from Harper Collins sent me Reader, I Married HIm: Stories inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier. I did not know anything about the collection before I was sent it, but I loved the idea of seeing how Jane Eyre has influenced contemporary authors. Harper Collins is publishing Reader, I Married Him on account of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday on the 21st of April.
‘Reader, I Married Him’ is probably one of the most well-known lines from literature, especially if we are talking about women writers. It would rank high with Rebecca‘s ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ and Pride and Prejudice’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife‘. Editor Tracy Chevalier has teamed up with authors such as Susan Hill, Tessa Hadley, Helen Dunmore, Lionel Shriver, Esther Freud, Audrey Niffenegger, and Namwali Serpeli to produce a collection of short stories that take place all over the world, in very different times, and with very different themes, but all connected by Brontë’s masterpiece.
It is very hard to review a short story collection – especially like this one – because all the stories are different and they all have different themes. However, I was surprised to find more than a few short stories in which Helen Burns and Grace Poole are given a voice and more space and time than in the original. This is a collection of stories written only by women, inspired by a woman writer and a female main character that changed the history of literature forever. No wonder then, that all but a few decided to contribute by placing a young woman as the main character and a narrator most of the times. So, if there is a something that definitely connects all the stories it is the legacy of Jane Eyre as an example of endurance and female agency at a time when women were supposed to be passive and give up their own voices for the men in their lives. But, as Chevalier herself highlights in the foreword:
“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.
Anyone can imagine the importance of this short story collection where the 19th century and 21st century literary traditions merge in order to pay homage to one of the best and most beloved woman writers in the history of Western literature. Not only that, but with the inclusion of authors of non-Western backgrounds Chevalier has achieved the ultimate update of the classic offering the reader a more complex and more diverse take on Jane’s story. The book is then, perfect for the #ReadWomen and #ReadDiverse projects that try to encourage the reading of books by women authors and by BAME and LGBT writers.
Due to that freedom of re-imagining, it is sometimes hard to see the connection to Jane Eyre, and to see how even the characters may relate. However, I was immediately charmed by”Dorset Gap” by Tracy Chevalier, a contemporary take on the story depicting a date between a Janey and an Ed, university students, out on a hike together. I was also fascinated by the many ways in which Jane Eyre‘s marriage to a completely inappropriate man can be interpreted as the beginning of an abusive relationship, with important consequences that would take place after Brontë’s happily ever after ending. Whenever I think about the novel, I see it as a love story, but I had never stopped to reconsider it under the light of romantic love – an enterprise of Third Wave feminism in which traditional and patriarchal ideas about love can lead to a woman’s subjection and abuse in a relationship with her partner. So, I was thankful and glad that some authors decided to explore what could have become of Jane and Rochester, and how their relationship would translate to a time when despite 200 years of social developments, women still consider 19th century a role model. Just a reminder that Charlotte is still shaking our world and urging us to lead better, more fulfilling lives as women.
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