More than 150 years since the publication of “Jane Eyre” — and 200 years since the birth of its author, Charlotte Brontë — this gothic romance still enthralls us. Its most famous line serves as the title of a new book, “Reader, I Married Him,” edited by Tracy Chevalier, the bestselling author of “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Each of the 21 tales in the collection is loosely inspired by “Jane Eyre.” Contributors include Chevalier, Francine Prose, Lionel Shriver and Elizabeth McCracken.
Chevalier, who just published the novel “At the Edge of the Orchard,” answered questions about modern interpretations of “Jane Eyre” and why the 19th-century tale endures.
Q: Why do you think people are so taken with “Jane Eyre?”
A: Jane Eyre is an underdog, and underneath it all, we all think we’re underdogs. If you ask people if they were popular in high school, everyone says they were on the fringe. Even the cheerleaders say that. Jane Eyre has nothing — she’s an orphan, she’s unloved — yet somehow out of that very unpromising beginning, she manages to hold onto that core of being, and she triumphs in the end. Everyone can relate to that.
Q: Why does the line “Reader, I Married Him” resonate so strongly?
A: When Jane says, “Reader, I married him,” it’s almost like we’re all saying, “Reader, we married him,” or “Reader, we got her to marry him.” It draws us in and makes us a part of the story — like we’re included in the decision. And that’s incredibly seductive and appealing. In the 1840s, there were not many books in which the reader was addressed directly. I think Charlotte Brontë was the first woman to do that, certainly in a major book, and I liken it to breaking through the fourth wall in the theater. It’s always a surprise, and I think people love that.
Q: I’ve always thought of “Reader, I married him” as a triumphant line.
A: To me, it’s slightly defiant. “Reader, I married him, although you’re probably wondering why I took him because he treated me so badly and he’s now damaged goods.” But that’s one of its beauties — it’s unresolved. The best artwork is the kind of artwork that is unresolved. One reason people love the painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is that it isn’t clear what the girl is thinking. It doesn’t matter how many times you go back to the painting and look at it, it’s still up in the air.
Q: For this book, your contribution is a story about a hapless college kid who follows a feisty young woman on a hike after a music festival. How did you come up with that?
A: I wasn’t planning to write a story, and then some of the other writers said, “You’re not writing a story? C’mon, you’re making us do this!” By that time, most of the stories were in, and while some of them are funny, I thought we needed something a little lighter. Another way you can go about responding to “Reader, I Married Him” is to write about “Jane Eyre” as a touchstone in our society. I thought I’d like to do that. The girl in my story is a serious reader — she’s a Jane Eyre persona — but the guy is so hapless that he mixes up “Jane Eyre” with “Wuthering Heights” in an attempt to impress her. He recognizes that she’s kind of out of his league.
Q: And then Francine Prose’s story completely de-romanticizes the Jane/Rochester relationship.
A: Yes, they go into couple’s therapy! The classic book ends with a marriage: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility.” They all live happily ever after. That’s a fairy tale template, and we’ve now moved beyond that. I love that Francine flipped that. Rochester is eyeing the au pair, and the reader gets this feeling that Jane herself might end up abused or divorced or worse. It’s quite sinister.
Carole Burns, the author of “The Missing Woman and Other Stories,” is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.
Edited by Tracy Chevalier
William Morrow. 304 pp. Paperback, $15.99