Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by JANE EYRE
Tracy Chevalier, ed.
William Morrow, 2016
You have to work a bit to keep your cynicism at bay with a book like Reader, I Married Him. It’s clearly meant to seize a marketing moment—the stories in it may be “inspired” by Jane Eyre, but it is underwritten by the hope that readers, inspired in their turn by the hoopla about Charlotte Brontë’s 200th anniversary, will snap it up.
But what’s wrong with that, really? Publishing is a business, after all, one that needs to find its profits where it can in these difficult times, and if we recognize the category of “occasional poetry,” can’t there also be “occasional fiction”? Isn’t the Brontë bicentennial a worthy occasion for it? And even if the project itself seems opportunistic, the list of contributors to Reader, I Married Him is a who’s who of contemporary women writers, so the opportunity is ours as well, to enjoy the variety and creativity of their engagement with Brontë’s masterpiece.
Reader, I Married Him doesn’t always make it easy to keep up this positive attitude, but for the most part it holds up well, not so much as a sustained interrogation of Jane Eyre’s form, style, or ideas but as an assemblage of stories unified by an interest in marriage—which is what Chevalier invited when she identified Jane’s line “Reader, I married him” as the focal point of both Brontë’s novel and her anthology. “Twenty-one writers,” she says in her Foreword, “have taken up the line and written what it has urged them to write”; as she acknowledges, not all of them have stayed close to the source, but
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.
If you did pick up Reader, I Married Him because you are a devotee of Brontë’s novel, how satisfactory you find the results will probably depend on how content you are with approaching Jane Eyre as a novel primarily about marriage. There’s no doubt, of course, that Jane Eyre concludes with Jane’s marriage, but as both its title and its subtitle (“An Autobiography”) direct us to notice, it is at least as much a Bildungsroman—a novel of development—as it is a marriage plot novel: the wedding that ends it is less a romantic triumph than the culmination of Jane’s quest for autonomy. Only after she has achieved complete independence can Jane find a happy ending with the man she loves, the man she steadfastly rejected, in spite of that love, when the terms of their relationship proved to be subordination, moral degradation, and religious compromise. “You have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me,” argues Mr. Rochester as he begs Jane to forget his existing wife, poor mad Bertha, and run away with him. “Who will be injured by what you do?” Jane asks herself, in turn.
To me, it’s her words in this moment of crisis, much more than the line Chevalier highlights, that epitomize the novel’s revolutionary spirit and Jane’s own strength of character:
Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. . . . Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth . . . there I plant my foot.’
She will take Rochester on her terms or not at all. These terms include an end to his power over her, not just physically and emotionally but also socially and economically: she cannot face him as an equal, as she herself recognizes, as long as she must depend on him, as long as he lords it over her as a “sultan.” This is why, even during the initial ecstatic phase of their courtship, she resists his domination and resolves to write to her rich uncle: “‘It would, indeed, be a relief,’ I thought,”
‘if I had ever so small an independency: I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester, or sitting like a second Danae with the golden shower falling daily round me. . . . If I had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, I could better endure to be kept by him now.’
In her foreword, Chevalier claims that “no one ever remembers” that Jane inherits a fortune before she ultimately marries Mr. Rochester. Her comment that this detail “is a deus ex machina out of her control and so it means less to us” is a symptom of the limited view of the novel that underlies and thus limits Reader, I Married Him. Jane herself is really the deus ex machina here: her determination to thus establish her own position actually prevents that first, bigamous, wedding, as her letter to her uncle alerts Bertha’s brother to Rochester’s intentions and sends him rushing back to “declare the existence of an impediment.”
So a focus on marriage itself rather than on the prerequisites Jane sets for it—which challenge so many foundational assumptions about love, courtship, and romance not just then but now—seems to me both to shortchange Brontë and to set potentially dull parameters on the contributors’ responses to her. None of their stories really resist or transcend them, either: by and large these are stories about their protagonists’ relationships with other people rather than with themselves, much less with broader social or political conditions. Still, most of them are engaging on their own terms, and in some cases they push off from Brontë’s novel in surprising and thought-provoking ways.
Four of the stories in the collection are explicit rewritings of Jane Eyre. Two of these—Helen Dunmore’s “Grace Poole Her Testimony” and Salley Vickers’s “Reader, She Married Me”—not only take up alternative points of view but specifically challenge the reliability of Jane’s own narrative. Dunmore gives us a predatory Jane, watching and weighing and waiting to take what she wants:
The pale one thinks she has the measure of us all. Up and down the garden she goes in the shadows of evening. She ticks us off in her steps. The old lady. Mr. R. The little girl. The guests who come and go. She would tick me off too but she only knows my name. She asked it and they told her: Grace Poole.
In Dunmore’s version, Jane’s student Adele is Grace’s daughter with Mr. Rochester. “The little girl did not know me,” she tells us; “I was content with that,” as she is content to tend to Bertha, whom Grace is determined to protect against Jane’s intrusion: “the pale one may hunt but she must not touch my lady.” Jane’s uncanniness is often remarked by Mr. Rochester in Brontë’s original; Dunmore’s twist gives it a nice shade of menace. Vickers too gives us a Jane who’s not entirely benign: her Mr. Rochester regrets Bertha’s sad fate and feels forced into his second marriage. “How could I tell her,” he laments,
how devoutly I wished she had gone to India with her stern cousin St. John Rivers? The idea of marriage to her now revolted me. I pleaded my infirmities. She insisted they only made me dearer to her. I hinted at a lost virility, hoping that a natural delicacy would prevent her from inquiring further; she smiled as if she understood my embarrassment and forgave me. Oh, the scourge of that forgiveness when it was not hers but another’s that I needed to soothe my fighting soul!
Rochester watches Jane writing with weary wariness: “I have every confidence that she will turn our story as her will would have it—herself my saviour, her fierce morality triumphant, a truly righteous heroic love conquering all. Which is why,” he concludes (rather artlessly) “I have seen fit to write down my own version of events.” What Brontë gives us as one of Jane’s greatest triumphs—her control over her own narrative—comes across in these stories as something more coercive, even malevolent.
Francine Prose and Audrey Niffenegger each take a somewhat less direct approach. Prose’s “The Mirror,” however, also raises questions about narrative and control: in her cleverly self-referential updating of the story, Jane finds herself in a kind of infinite regress as her version of events is contradicted by Rochester’s:
It turned out there had been no wife. It turned out that it had been a parrot, screaming in the attic. The parrot had belonged to his wife. . . She’d died long before I came to work for him as a governess. There was never Bertha, in the attic.
In couples therapy, Mr. Rochester suggests Jane’s past has “affected” her, made her “unstable, possibly even mad.” She practises “passive resistance” to his version: “It was not a parrot. It was not a parrot.” Eventually Rochester hires a governess to help her care for their son, who (understandably, under these conditions) is not thriving. The new governess tells her own story, which is “my life story as if it had happened to her.” It is, indeed, Jane’s story exactly, and it too is immediately contradicted by Mr. Rochester: “That screaming you heard was a parrot.” What has happened? What will happen next? Does the story of marriage and madness and mastery simply keep repeating itself? The confusion of past, present, and future ingeniously reflects the pattern of identification and resistance Brontë creates between Jane and her mad double.
Niffenegger’s “The Orphan Exchange,” in its turn, recreates Jane’s years at the repressive Lowood school. In ways reminiscent of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (which the story also resembles in its deceptively flat tone), Lowood is recast as a facility where war orphans are sent to be (as Jane belatedly discovers) repurposed. There Jane befriends and loses Helen Burns, as in the original novel, but after completing her own relatively benign assignment as an au pair, she finds that Helen did not die but was used for testing biological weapons and then not returned because she was feared to be contagious. The reunited friends create a new life—the kind of independent future some readers have wished Brontë offered her Jane instead of settling her into a conventional marriage, however recalibrated:
We got boring jobs, we moved into a tiny flat above a bakery and we made a home together.
In this brave new world, marriage itself can be a radical act: “When it eventually became legal, Reader, I married her.”
Niffenegger’s story is one of several in the collection that resist the implicit heteronormativity of Brontë’s line. Elizabeth McCracken’s “Robinson Crusoe at the Water Park,” for instance, focuses on the relationship between Bruno (who “did not believe in weddings”) and Ernest: when their son, who “was their marriage,” is nearly drowned, Bruno is overcome and finally proposes. Emma Donoghue’s “Since First I Saw Your Face” imagines the details of the real-life friendship between the Victorian Minnie Benson (wife of Edward Benson, eventually Archbishop of Canterbury) and a woman named Ellen Hall, about whom, Donoghue’s notes tell us, “almost nothing is known.” “I did marry him, Ellen,” Minnie says, at once resolutely and wistfully as Ellen urges her to stay: “I married him and there’s no getting away from that.” Marriage is not necessarily a triumphant conclusion, after all: in this story, it is an obstacle, an oppression, not a happy ending.
The difficulty—even potential tragedy—of marriage is also a theme of Joanna Briscoe’s “To Hold” and Evie Wild’s “Behind the Mountain.” “Reader I married, married, married him,” says Briscoe’s narrator, who has married one husband “because I had to” and another “because I liked him.” Wild’s wife has followed her husband to Canada, where she mourns the son left behind in boarding school and faces both the psychological pressure of loneliness and the more literal hazard of bears. Marriage, in these scenarios, as in Jane Gardam’s intriguing intergenerational family story “It’s a Man’s Life, Ladies,” creates as many problems as it solves.
These stories seemed to me only elliptically related to Jane Eyre, as did most of the others in the anthology. Though in various ways they all touch on the waywardness of desire, the risks or instabilities of marriage, and the difficulties of distinguishing what you want from what you can or should have in a relationship, these are such open-ended themes that if that’s all a story needs to be “inspired by” Jane Eyre, it’s hard to know what wouldn’t qualify. I might have drawn the line at Susan Hill’s “Reader, I Married Him,” in which Wallis Simpson ruminates on her abdication-inducing marriage to Edward VIII. To be sure, it is built around the consequences of a particular wedding, and there’s something touching about its mournful conclusion:
How little of it seems to matter now.
Even this . . . that Reader, I married him.
But more than any other story in the collection, this one felt coopted into a project it’s not really a part of: except for that blunt reiteration of Bronte’s famous line, the story feels entirely remote from Jane Eyre, which is not that surprising given that the notes on contributors tell us Hill “has never read Jane Eyre.” Of the numerous other stories that I couldn’t connect directly to Jane Eyre, I enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s energetic, surprisingly funny “The Self-Seeding Sycamore” the most; I suppose Jeanette’s neighbor Burt Cuss (“It was an ugly name, like a one-two punch”) is Rochester-like in his surliness, but I’d be curious with this one, as with the others, to know if other readers saw Brontë’s influence specifically anywhere in it.
My favorite story in the collection is one of two that incorporate Brontë’s novel without overtly rewriting it. This approach lets the authors—Chevalier herself, with “Dorset Gap,” and Kirsty Gunn, in “Dangerous Dog”—reflect on the meaning of Jane Eyre as a continuing literary presence without yoking their own stories too definitively to Brontë’s plot or characters. Gunn’s story in particular struck me as resonant with yet free from Jane Eyre. Its orphan protagonist, herself a fledgling writer, finds the “gateway” to her narrative in a peculiar encounter with a pit bull terrier that is “snapping and growling” on its chain as its owners taunt and provoke it. She has been reading Jane Eyre and thinking about the time Jane’s aunt locks her in the red room: “the idea that it might surround a person, that colour, might make her see things in a particular way,” she says, “. . . well, that detail stayed with me.” She sees red herself when she meets the young men with their dog; it’s a moment that ends up defining both her character and the story she’s telling, as she tames not just their “dangerous dog” Rocky (“His name’s not even Rocky . . . It’s Mr. Rochester”) and the boys. Mr. Rochester (suggestively enough) becomes her dog, and the boys become her disciples, converted to a new way of looking at the world much as Brontë’s Jane turns around the original Mr. Rochester when he is blinded and must learn to see differently:
by the time I left I’d told his previous ‘owners’ pretty much the full plot of Jane Eyre, and though all four of them thought it sounded ‘pretty fucking lame,’ they agreed that the scene in the red room had its merits.
Her secret weapon, like Jane’s, turns out to be less her righteous anger than the meaning and force she gives it. “After that,” as her writing instructor says, “it was just a case of writing it down.”
Reader, I Married Him may have been called into being for a highly commercial purpose, and according to a reductive premise about Brontë’s great, subversive, and highly political novel (imagine the very different stories that might have been inspired by a different line—“Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot,” for instance, or the ringing declaration of principle I quoted before). As a volume of stories about relationships, however—across boundaries of time, place, expectations, convention, or culture—it turns out to be a fine collection, sometimes even excellent. Is it as successful as a provocation to rethink Jane Eyre? Only occasionally.
Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.