“The mouse roars and we pump our fist with her.”
– Tracy Chevalier’s foreword to Reader, I Married Him
I’m knee deep in the last work I’ve decided to read to commemorate Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, and since today is May 1st and the month of April (Charlotte Brontë Month) has come to an end, I figured today was a good day to wind up my talk of Charlotte’s impressive literary career…for the present, that is.
I started reading the collection of short stories entitled Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier, this past week. A detailed post with small reviews of each particular short story in the collection is coming soon (watch this space!), but I wanted to take the opportunity today to discuss Chevalier’s foreword to the stories and address some points she makes that really resonated with me. If you can’t tell from the title, this set of short stories is inspired by Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, specifically by the first sentence of its last chapter.
“Reader, I married him.” – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
That has to be one of the most perfect lines in all of literary history, particularly because of its simplicity and its bold and honest declaration. Chevalier and her fellow female writers take this significant line and manipulate it, play with it, pay homage to it, in a set of stories that are as unique as they are interesting. I’m eager to share my specific thoughts on each story with you, but for now, I want to focus on what Chevalier has to say about this line, in her role as editor of the collection, and what this statement from such a feisty, strong and defiant narrator means for all women.
Quite a while ago, when I engaged in my millionth reading of Jane Eyre, I wrote a post outlining exactly what Jane’s story taught me (you can read the post here). I cited lines from the novel and described why they spoke to me, why they stuck with me, and how they shaped me into the woman I am today. Jane Eyre gave me, and continues to give me, the confidence to be a woman with force and passion, a woman who is ruled by her emotions but who uses them to strongly and assertively take on the world. Jane may be plain and little and quiet, but her personality and character are overwhelming and otherworldly. She is a force of nature.
These are facts that Chevalier rightly identifies in her foreword. She discusses how revolutionary Jane is as a character, how she gives womankind a model of fortitude and determination that was unheard of in the 19th century. I agree with Chevalier wholeheartedly on these points. But what Chevalier also notes, that I hadn’t ever considered (strange, I know, since I feel like I know Jane Eyre inside and out), is that Jane’s simple statement in the last chapter is a final, direct and explicit representation of her agency.
~ Reader, I married him. ~ It’s a beautiful line because it is romantic – it calls to mind images of love rekindled, obstacles defied, happily ever after. But according to Chevalier, it is also constructed in such a way as to give Jane all of the power and, more significantly, all of the choice. By placing herself as the subject of the sentence and her beloved Mr. Rochester as the object, Jane is asserting that she chose to marry Rochester; she was the one who decided that she wished to be married to him, that domestic life was something she wanted. Jane married Rochester, and, unlike how it must’ve been for so many women of her time, she did so on her own terms.
There’s no point arguing – Rochester always wanted to marry Jane. From the moment he fell of his horse Mesrour and encountered her, he was bewitched, enchanted, mesmerized. And although he had some convoluted methods for gaining her affection, he was willing to defy customs, propriety and law to make her his wife. But Jane has morals, she has a conscience – and more than that, she craves freedom. She will not allow any conditions or circumstances to hinder or limit her, and so she must consent to marry Rochester on her own terms and in her own time, when the situation is amended to suit her best.
“‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’”
– Jane Eyre
And, this is what Chevalier rightfully sees in Jane and argues that her defiant statement that she married Rochester articulates. At the end of the novel, in the final chapter that sums up what her life has shaped up to be, Jane has achieved that ever important power to choose. She is a 19th century heroine who will not consent to a marriage that doesn’t suit her, who will not engage in employment that doesn’t please her, who will not live in circumstances that aren’t comfortable for her. More than anything, she is a woman who makes her own decisions, who gets married when and how she wishes to the person she loves. For young women, or for women of any age, it is important, as Chevalier suggests, to remember this valuable lesson: that we, just like Jane, are always in control of our own destinies.
Girl with a Green Heart