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Thursday, April 21, 2016

On Charlotte Brontë's Bicentenary - Review of READER, I MARRIED HIM (edited by Tracy Chevalier)

Today is the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë's birth so I'm reviewing an anthology of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre.

3 Stars
This is a collection of 21 short stories by 21 female writers, short stories inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Jane’s statement towards the end of the novel that she married Mr. Rochester.  (I loved the summary of the book given by a character in Tracy Chevalier’s story, “Dorset Gap”:  “A governess full of inner strength who marries a completely inappropriate man.”)

In her forward, the anthology’s editor, wrote, “I liken Reader, I Married Him to a stone thrown into a pond, with its resulting ripples.  Some of the writers have written close to where the stone has entered the water, taking the Jane Eyre story itself and writing it from a different angle . . . Other stories are ripples a little further from the source, including elements from the novel such as the moors setting, or specific incidents, or imagery such as mirrors or animals, or even certain lines . . . Other stories may move still further away from Jane, yet almost all of them address marriage (or today’s equivalent of it) in some way, exploring when marriage might happen, or should happen, or shouldn’t, or when it ends, or is with the wrong person, or seems to be with the right person but goes wrong.”

And, yes, the stories are certainly a mix, varying hugely in content and style.  Some pick up Jane's story and are set in Brontë’s time period; others are set in contemporary times; and one is in the future.   Some of the characters are gay and others are straight.   Some are Muslim, some are Christian, and some are Jewish.  The stories take place in England, the United States, Turkey, Zambia, and other locales.  One story, “Behind the Mountain” by Evie Wyld, is set in Canada. 

The stories I most enjoyed are the ones which used Jane Eyre as a real starting point.  “Grace Poole Her Testimony” by Helen Dunmore has Mrs. Rochester’s caregiver telling the story of her life before the arrival of Jane at Thornfield and giving her opinion of the governess whom she calls “the pale one.”  “The Mirror” by Francine Prose examines Jane and Edward’s marriage and has them going into couples therapy.  “Reader, She Married Me” by Salley Vickers is from Mr. Rochester’s viewpoint; he is burdened by guilt and regrets.  “The Orphan Exchange” by Audrey Niffenegger is a lesbian version which re-imagines Jane’s real love relationship.

Some of the pieces are only very tangentially connected to Jane Eyre.  Of this group, I most enjoyed two.  “Reader, I Married Him” was written by Susan Hill who admits to never having read Brontë’s masterpiece.  Hill’s contribution is a first-person interior monologue delivered by Wallis Simpson; she details her relationship and marriage with Edward VIII who abdicated the English throne in order to marry her.  “The Self-Seeding Sycamore” by Lionel Shriver also stands out; it is a delightfully funny story about a widow’s problems with her neighbour.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, a short story anthology is often full of surprises:  “You never know what you’re gonna get.”  Some of the pieces I enjoyed and some were not to my taste.