Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all time so I was very excited when I first heard about Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories inspired by the classic novel, and specifically, one iconic line. Edited by acclaimed author Tracy Chevalier the collection was produced in collaboration with the Bronte Society and Bronte Parsonage Museum for Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary year in 2016.
‘Twenty-one writers, then, have taken up the line and written what it has urged them to write. I liken “Reader, I married him” to a stone thrown into a pond, with its resulting ripples…’ – Tracy Chevalier
The book includes stories written by twenty-one women and in her foreword Tracy Chevalier explains the significance of this. Based upon one of the most famous lines in literature it is a quote from a memorable heroine created by a woman who succeeded in becoming a famous, bestselling author despite her unlikely background. Given the era in which Jane Eyre was written both Charlotte’s success and Jane’s character can be considered heartening and empowering to women. Within this collection is the work of a diverse group of women who have all offered something very different in their stories, showing how much inspiration can be drawn from so few words.
Some of the stories stay fairly close to the novel but tell the story from different perspectives. Others place the characters in a more contemporary setting whilst some stray further still from the original story, instead drawing on the themes raised. In some stories the link to the original novel is very clear but in others it is harder to notice. With this in mind I wouldn’t say you have to be a fan of Jane Eyre to appreciate these stories and there is something in here for all readers to enjoy. Personally, as my love of Jane Eyre was my reason in wanting to read this book my preference was towards those that stick close to the story and characters I know and love. Here are my highlights from the collection:
Grace Poole Her Testimony by Helen Dunmore – As one of Mr Rochester’s servants Grace Poole was a woman who was used as an explanation for the strange goings on at Thornfield. But in this story we get to hear Grace’s version of events – her relationships and what she really thinks of Jane. And in Grace’s testimony, Jane appears to be a very different person: ‘But you could put your hand through Miss Eyre and never grasp her. I know what she is’
Reader, She Married Me by Salley Vickers – Narrated by Mr Rochester we get to view the proposal from the male perspective and it is not one you may expect. We learn of Mr Rochester’s feelings towards Jane and how they changed as well as his relationship towards his first wife: ‘I had so roundly failed one woman that it wasn’t in me to seem to fail another now.’
The Mirror by Francine Prose – Told from Jane’s perspective this is the story of what happened after her marriage to Mr Rochester. It deals with the challenges they faced in their marriage and the shadow left by the events of the past. It is also a look at how one life reflects another, and how past trauma can haunt us: ‘…we discussed my life as a series of traumas that absolutely had to produce a severely damaged adult.’
Whilst those mentioned above were my favourites from the collection there were lots of details amongst the rest that I enjoyed. These include Mr Rochester in the form of a pit bull terrier in Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog and Jane’s experience in an orphanage in a modern, war-torn country in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Orphan Exchange. There is an interesting mix of characters and their stories within this book but what most of them have in common is their portrayal of love and marriage. We see marriages within different cultures and weddings that don’t quite go to plan. We also explore the depth of human emotions, looking at the reasons for why we marry and how it changes people’s lives, for better or worse. All in all this is a varied selection of stories that capture what Jane Eyre’s famous statement means to different people, showing how one literary heroine’s story can inspire many more.
Reader, I Married Him was published by The Borough Press on 7th April 2016. Many thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review, and for the opportunity to take part in this blog tour.