Oh me oh my, I am in reading bliss at the moment. Every book I pick up I find the author is just knocking them out the park so that we spectators can only but watch in awe. I appear to have found myself on a run of books where classics are re written or re imagined. Having started Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld last night (Pride & Prejudice retold in the here and now) and after that planning to read Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Gap of Time’ (her version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Winters Tale’), I am here to talk about the book I finished yesterday morning. I must confess I suffered the ‘Great Book Curse’ with this one, desperate to get through it as I was enjoying it so much but also never wanting it to end. Alas, it did, as all good things must*.
‘Reader, I Married Him’ is a collection of short stories edited by Tracy Chevalier and all based on, you guessed it, Jane Eyre. Now I would always have read this collection as I am a huge fan of Jane, Bertha and Rochester (in both their original Bronte form and their appearance in ‘Wild Sagasso Sea’) but I did not reckon on the roll call of authors included. This is a knock out collection with the likes of Jane Gardam, Tessa Hadley, Lionel Shriver…the list goes on. I think this just shows the importance of Jane Eyre when so many of our greatest women writers are getting involved with the project. Some have kept close to the text itself while others have taken one moment or issue raised in the book and then worked this into a whole new story. I feel like I should have some kind of critical comment to offer on how I found x amount of the collection to be not as strong but I honestly cannot, I enjoyed each and every offering and found them all to be beautifully written. With some I must confess I did struggle to find the Jane Eyre link, which has irked me immensely since I consider myself to be such a fan, but I think with closer rereading I will be able to root out the seed of inspiration (well, I hope so and if not I will be badgering all you readers for your take on the stories in question!)
I was offered another way of looking at Mr Rochester and his experience which has really stuck with me. Originally reading Jane Eyre at a young age I viewed him as the silent, brooding, romantic hero. On rereading at a slightly older age I took him as rude, stuffy and overpowering yet still understood the attraction Jane felt for him. It was an awakening when I read the wonderful Wild Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, my eyes opened to the fact that this man was potentially an absolute misogynist brute who really should be kept away from all women. Salley Vickers shines a light on him that now has made me question him again. Exactly what did he want as he faced up to the ruins of Thornfield Hall and how the tale would unfold if written in his own hand. Francine Prose then had me in a tailspin all over again as she presented a man who could so cleverly make a woman question what she had seen with her very own eyes with the constant undermining of her voice.
Helen Dunmore gives the platform to the one who watches everything unfold in Jane Eyre, gets plenty of blame but never gets centre stage, now is your time to step up – Grace Poole. Audrey Niffenegger gives her version of what really was going on at that children’s home, did Helen really die of just a chill? While Esther Freud looks at the psychology of Transference in an out of bounds relationship, leaving the reader to analyse how this reflects feelings presented by our protagonists in the original telling.
I could happily have started this book again immediately after finishing that last story and have no doubt I will go back to it soon. Naturally it has left me with a hankering to pull one of my copies of Jane Eyre off the shelf for yet another read, and actually… “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to …walk to the shelf and do just that!”
‘Reader, I Married Him’ Edited by Tracy Chevalier £12.99 (Harper Collins)
*Although must they?! The selection of books I have spoken about at the beginning show that the stories go on and on, even if dressed in slightly new clothing they have reappeared.
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