I’ve spent the last few days working my way through the 21 short stories that comprise, Reader, I Married him, a collection inspired by the defiantly memorable line with which Charlotte Bronte draws to a close her novel, Jane Eyre. The collection was commissioned specially for Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary year and Tracy Chevalier, the editor, likens it to ‘a stone thrown into a pond, with its resulting ripples.’ It’s a good metaphor preparing us for the fact that some of the stories bear less obvious links to Jane’s declaration than others and that this is entirely OK because almost all, ‘address marriage (or today’s equivalent of it) in some way, exploring when marriage might 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.’
This for me, however, is what’s most disappointing about the collection: I’m not convinced that JE is a novel about marriage; we cling to the line ‘reader, I married him’ as if it’s the best possible thing that could have happened to Jane when the language of the final chapter does not necessarily encourage this reading: the imagery of death which pervades Bronte’s description of Ferndean should give us reason to pause while the absence of that restless energy that has so animated Jane’s narrative from the start feels strange – like something is missing; we make think the latter is a good sign, an indication that Jane has ended her journey and is complete. I’m not so sure: the writing is flat and I can’t help wishing for more of Jane’s fiery spirit – the spirit that has kept me with her, a steadfast friend, throughout.
I’m not suggesting that Jane should not have married Rochester or that we should not engage with the line, ‘Reader, I married him’ (I have chosen to call my own Bronte course, ‘Reader, I married him: the End’? because I want to challenge the notion that the novel’s key interest is held in this line alone). My point rather, is that by taking up ‘Reader, I married him’, as this collection does primarily because it’s well-known and loved (and presumably therefore appealing from a commercial point of view), we do seem to be celebrating what’s most conservative about Jane’s narrative; next to those passages in the novel in which Jane expresses longing for ‘all of incident, life, fire and feeling, that I desired and had not, in my actual existence’, her assertion that, ‘Reader, I married him,’ sounds tame and even a little smug.
There are some brilliant stories in this collection (try Kirsty Gunn’s ‘Dangerous Dog’, Tessa Hadley’s ‘My Mother’s Wedding’ and Helen Dunmore’s ‘Grace Poole’), but I can’t help feeling that they are underserved (and Jane Eyre in turn) by the title of the collection and its cliched dust-jacket – a juicy red pomegranate – (the ultimate symbol of fertility) – in the shape of a heart. Personally, I think they should have gone for a pit-ball terrier (a nod to the pit-ball , Mr Rochester, of Gunn’s story), possibly dressed in some sort of gypsy-style dog-coat sourced from a pet boutique in Chelsea … OK, maybe this is a step too far in the opposite direction but hopefully, I make a decent point.