Reader, I Married Him
Edited by Tracy Chevalier
(The Borough Press, £12.99)
CHARLOTTE Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Along with her sisters, Emily and Anne, she would go on to write some of the best-loved novels in English literature. To celebrate her bicentenary, author Tracy Chevalier asked 20 female writers each to pen a short story inspired by Charlotte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre. Like many short story collections, this is a curate’s egg, with good, bad and indifferent contributions. Some authors have stretched the brief to breaking point, but those who have stayed close to the source of inspiration have produced interesting stories.
Chief among these is Salley Vickers’s Reader, She Married Me, a radical re-imagining of Bronte’s story from the dying Edward Rochester’s point of view. In this tale, the much-loved Bertha Mason’s mental illness is an acute case of postnatal depression, reactivated when her baby daughter dies. Rochester tries to care for his wife while dealing with his own grief. He finds comfort in the calm presence of Jane Eyre, his foster child’s new governess, but realises too late that the quiet strength that he had come to rely on masked an arch, passive-aggressive manipulator. There is a sharp barb in the story’s title, which echoes the most famous line from the novel.
Likewise, Helen Dunmore’s, Grace Poole, Her Testimony, leaves a strong impression. Again, Jane Eyre is cast as the villain of the piece, Poole claiming she was never fooled by her demure demeanour. Poole remains fiercely loyal to the first Mrs Rochester, and does not hide her lack of respect for Mr Rochester who is, she says, “a sly one”. With her lack of education and fondness for porter, Poole blends into the background of the great house of Thornfield, but she hears and sees far more than anyone realises.
Chevalier’s own contribution, Dorset Gap, features Jenn, a quietly self-possessed young woman walking off the effects of a rave in the Dorset countryside. She is accompanied by Ed, who is trying to find a crack in her inscrutable carapace. Finding a book full of musings from previous walkers at Dorset Gap, Jenn, who is re-reading Jane Eyre, adds a quote from the novel. Ed, trying to impress her, also adds a quote from the novel but his lack of familiarity with the book is all too obvious.
Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Hill and Francine Prose deserve honourable mentions for their contributions but the collection seems awkward with not all the stories comfortably fitting the brief. For instance, it is hard to detect the echoes of Jane Eyre in Linda Grant and Lionel Shriver’s tales, although they are otherwise perfectly sound short stories. As a commemoration of the birth of Charlotte Bronte this collection is a qualified success. It is worth reading to enjoy the stand-out stories, and perhaps to puzzle over the connections between Jane Eyre and some of the more ambiguous stories.