As my faithful listeners know, I have a long-standing and abiding admiration for the Brontë sisters, Ann, Emily, and Charlotte. When a new book came out by Tracy Chevalier with the title, Reader, I Married Him, I could not get to a bookstore fast enough. The title of the book stems from that immortal line near the end of Jane Eyre.
Tracy has written a number of wonderfully inventive novels including, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and At the Edge of the Orchard. She has also managed to corral 21 of the best women writers today. Among them is Emma Donoghue, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak. Each writer based their stories the line “Reader, I married him,” and then took that wonderful morsel to stories of amazing creativity, empathy, and power.
Picking favorites for this review is almost impossible. While the stories vary on the treatment, they all possess wonderful imaginations. A case in point is “Grace Poole Her Testimony” by Helen Dunmore. She writes, “Reader, I married him. Those are her words for sure. She would have him at the time and place she chose, with every dish on the table to her appetite. // She came in meek and mild, but I knew her at first glance. There she sat in her low chair at a decent distance from the fire, buttering up Mrs. Fairfax as if the old lady were a plate of parsnips. She didn’t see me, but I saw her. You don’t live the life I lived without learning to move so quiet that there is never a stir to frighten anyone. // Jane Eyre. You couldn’t touch her. Nothing could bring a flush of color to that pale cheek. What kind of a pallor was it, you ask? A snowdrop pushing its way out of the bare earth, as green as it was white: that would be a comparison she liked. But I would say: sheets. Blank sheets. Paper, or else a bed that no one had ever lain in or ever wood” (31). Grace Poole was a servant of Rochester who was charged with taking care of Bertha, the iconic “mad women in the attic.”
Joanna Briscoe writes in “To Hold,” Mary and I stole conversations between lessons, between days and nights, every moment with her treasured, even the times when we clashed and tangled and cried, then tried so hard to start afresh. But how could you love a woman as I loved her? She lined my existence because she lived inside me, and at night as Robert slept, there were the colors of her, the fragrance, the smooth shell of skin behind her ear. When we could escape town, no one else on the moors on wet days, she walked with me in all the winds, which had names, and by the stream sources, among the curlews, the peregrine nests. She showed me the sandstone and the thorns and waterfalls: all the pretty places where the toadstools grew in dark secret; the drowning ponds, sphagnum, fairy tale growth in tree shadows” (61). This story has an ethereal bent that bring to mind the moors the Brontë sisters loved so dearly.
If I had the time and space, I would throw about pages to give a sample of each story. Tracy Chevalier in Reader, I married Him has assembled a marvelous collection of stories that reflect on the wealth of the literature of the 19th century. It is a collection every avid reader and admirer of the Brontë’s should have a permanent copy close at hand. 5 Stars for each of these women.