Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the most famous books of all time (let’s just say spoiler alerts have probably passed the statute of limitations). The novel, written as Jane’s “autobiography,” chronicles the passionate, independent and fiercely moral woman’s life (dare we say, #girlboss?). The reader follows Jane from her abusive childhood as an orphan to her tempestuous and very complicated relationship with Edward Rochester, a man with more than a few skeletons in his closet (or attic). The story offers endless delights for the modern audience, loved by mothers, daughters, scholars and book clubs alike. It’s been adapted to film, TV and even musical theater. The novel is ripe for both remixing and re-imagining, which novels like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea has done beautifully. This week’s book recommendations carry on Brontë’s (and Jane’s) literary tradition, featuring two very different riffs on this classic titan, plus a real autobiography of another independent woman and writer.
1. Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre Edited by Tracy Chevalier ($10): That most famous line from Brontë’s novel becomes a springboard for twenty-one very different and interesting tales in this collection of short stories. Writers such as Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), Emma Donoghue (Room, the basis of last year’s Brie Larson triumph), Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and Esther Freud (Hideous Kinky) each put their unique spin on the concept, paying homage to the family that produced three indelible female voices. Jane’s gift and her driving force is her clever wit, which makes her more than a match for any other character in the novel, despite the inherently gendered power dynamics of her time and place. Of the title’s inspirational line, Chevalier writes, “is Jane’s defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story… Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative.”
Some stories take their inspiration more closely from the original, telling the story from a different perspective or a different time period. Others spin one image, incident, setting or line from the book and push even further away from the source. Nearly all deal with the idea of marriage or partnership and its infinite diversity. You don’t need to know Jane Eyre intimately to enjoy these works (all you need is some love in your heart for awesome ladies), but if you do, it might bring an extra smile to your face.
2. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye ($18): “Reader, I murdered him,” says the fascinating title character of Lyndsay Faye’s new novel. Reading about the unfair, painful and sadistic treatment the orphaned Jane Eyre receives in Brontë’s work might well encourage violent feelings to surface in any sympathetic reader. What if Jane had felt those feelings and had actually acted on them? Jane Steele examines that concept in a darkly humorous take on the original. Steele, a self-described “friendly monster,” is bold and determined in a world where “meekness was selling as a premium.”
In actions that are anything but meek, she takes the lives of a number of the perpetrators of her misery, then finds herself hiding from “justice” as she takes satisfaction in writing false “last confessions” of the executed. When she finds that her childhood home, Highgate House, is now run by army doctor Charles Thornfield and butler Sadar Singh, Jane decides to disguise herself and take the house’s governess position. Jane falls for Thornfield and questions begin to arise. Who has the deeper and darker secrets? Who’s better at lying? Who can forgive the other? Is Jane a hero or anti-hero? Can we even trust what we read? “Autobiographies depend upon truth, but I have been lying for such a very long, lonesome time,” Jane muses.
3. Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith ($15): The author behind this autobiography has no trouble telling the plain, unvarnished truth. Writer Lee Smith has had a storied career (literally), over the past 45 years penning such popular works as The Last Girls, Fair and Tender Ladies and Saving Grace. Smith has won the O. Henry Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction and the North Carolina Award for Literature. In this book, she tells her own story for the first time, fully describing the world she grew up in. Grundy, “the rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia,” that becomes the underpinning of all her work.
You could call it a “dimestore” novel. It was in her father’s dime store in the Appalachian South where Smith became a writer, listening to people’s stories and filing them away for future use. Smith’s collection of fifteen essays are a warm salute to everything from coal miners to the courthouse, bluegrass to drive-in movies, in a place where tourists were unheard of and the concept of “jogging” was equally foreign. Like a jogger runs in circles, most of the people she knew “weren’t going anyplace,” but instead Smith felt she was “being raised to leave.” She reflects on a world that has of late embraced Appalachian culture and the odd feeling of having your childhood home suddenly “discovered”. Just like Jane, Smith “sees and records,” as the narrator of her distinctive world and her own stories. Reader, she wrote them.
What books do you want to marry? Tag us on your next commitment-worthy read @BritandCo!
(Featured photo via Getty)