I have to start this one with a confession: when I first read Jane Eyre at the age of 14, I hated it. I hated her. I thought she was tedious and wet. She wasn’t Catherine Earnshaw. But I knew I was probably missing something. As an adult I re-read it and I revised my opinion. Now I could admire Charlotte Bronte’s heroine for her gumption and strength. She might be ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’, but she isn’t tedious and she isn’t a drip. As a female protagonist, she is a hugely significant development in literature. But this time round my discomfort sprang from other elements of the novel. However romantic Rochester’s ‘string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame’ is, I cannot forget his madwoman in the attic, and I cannot help but feel uneasy at the fragile balance of power at the end of Bronte’s novel.
It was this jumble of feelings which meant I was intrigued by this collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre and edited by Tracy Chevalier. These twenty-one stories, all taking very different routes into, and away from, Bronte’s novel are written by some of today’s most brilliant and inventive female authors. Some, like Francine Prose’s The Mirror, with its focus on gaslighting (which succeeded in confirming my own thoughts on Rochester’s motives), or Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me, offer us a new light on Rochester’s character. Whilst I struggled a little with the idea of the vulnerable husband, it does cast back a new light on the original – Vickers’ Jane is rather steelier than I might have ever wanted to acknowledge.
I enjoyed the new versions of the main relationship, but I really loved the stories which gave distinctive voices to hitherto ‘silent’ female characters, as with Helen Dunmore’s Grace Poole Her Testimony, or new voices to historical figures. This is nothing new in itself, of course, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife have set the standard for such writing, but this is such a rich area for exploration. My most favourite story of all, Emma Donoghue’s Since First I Saw Your Face, is only obliquely linked to Jane Eyre but it explores the impact of thwarted passions and an unequal marriage from the perspective of a woman largely lost to history, Ellen/Elizabeth Hall, who fell in love with the wife of Edward Benson (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 – 1896).
Other stories focused more generally on marriage and love. Two I particularly enjoyed were Lionel Shriver’s The Self-Seeding Sycamore (it’s just joyous in its conclusion), and Elizabeth McCracken’s Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark. The latter is a new writer for me and I look forward to reading more of her work. However, I’m now going back to Jane Eyre again to re-read it through fresh eyes. Such is the brilliance of this collection.
Thanks to Lucy at http://www.lucideditorial.co.uk for checking my posts 🙂