I recently visited my family in Serbia and I did not bring any books with me for two reasons. First, I travel light (or at least, try to) and my family’s book collection is vast, so I knew that I would find something interesting to read. I also wanted to pick up a book in Serbian, my native tongue because I have not read in this language for a while. When I saw that my mom bought this book, I got excited as Tracy Chevalier is one of my favorite contemporary authors, whose novels I find myself rediscovering and enjoying every time I read them. Even after I discovered that is not her new novel, but a collection of short stories by various female authors who were all inspired by Jane Eyre, I was not disappointed as I found the idea of connecting various authors around one topic fascinating. Unfortunately, I cannot say that the realization of the idea is entirely successful as most stories are forgetful and shallow.
I absolutely loved the idea of using Jane Eyre’s famous sentence “Reader, I married him.” as a starting point for the collection, an idea that can take authors on different paths. Unfortunately, in this collection, most authors failed to take advantage of the given topic. Jane’s utterance is a sign of defiance and a sign of agency from a woman at the time the novel was written. Reading about women like Jane or inspired by her refusal to submit would be much more enjoyable than a collection of stories filled with discussions about nature of relationships and marriages by mostly uninteresting and flat characters, with forced humor in attempts to improve them. In fact, for most stories the only connection to the source material is marriage and relationships. Reducing the message of Jane Eyre to nothing more than that is quite frankly insulting to the heritage of this timeless story.
The inclusion of some geographical settings unusual for this kind of collections such as Somalia, Turkey or an unspecified African country provide an intriguing insight into lives and relationships in cultures different than ours. Although suffering from the same problem as other stories in their relation to the supposed inspiration, I found these stories to be the most engaging in the collection. On the other hand, I am honestly confused as in to how some stories passed the first round of review as they read as a first draft or work of amateur writers. Such is “Dangerous Dog” by Kirsty Gunn which reads more like a fan fiction of a teenager in love with a professor than a serious reaction to a timeless classic. “Transference” by Esther Freud is so pointless I had genuine trouble not giving up on the whole book. Honestly, there are better stories on websites dedicated entirely to fan fiction who actually make sense and are enjoyable to read.
Among all the stories set in modern times with loose or no connection with Jane Eyre, a few authors have taken upon the task by presenting Jane Eyre and her story from perspectives of other characters or by placing Jane and Mr. Rochester in the present time. They were refreshing and enjoyable to read as I did not have to focus more on finding connection with Bronte’s work than actually enjoy the story. However, except in “Grace Pool Her Testimony” by Helen Dunmore where Grace Pool gives opinion of Jane as an imposter, I did not feel like there is true understanding of the deeper messages and themes of the novel or characters. Once again, none of these stories presented the true, defiant spirit of Jane Eyre, imagining her instead as a quiet, submissive wife and a mother.
I absolutely love the starting idea of this book, but it feels like the qualities that could make it successful ended up being its downfall. Free interpretations of Jane Eyre’s powerful assertion by different authors led to creation of diverse collection of stories loosely based on its source material. While that is not necessarily a bad feature, the stories are so unconnected to each other that this book does not read as a coherent collection around a single strong idea, but as a failed attempt to bring various authors together around. At the end, I think that the biggest problem hindering this book is too much freedom given to the authors, resulting in a book that reads like each of them got her own writing prompt. For a book whose foundation lies in the common inspiration, that proved to be a huge issue. I find it baffling that women writers missed the mark on the meaning of this utterance so much.
With all of this being said, I am still an avid reader and a fan of Tracy Chevalier. I think that her novels are usually full of celebration and deep discussions about women and their position in society, especially in historical contexts. However, this also makes my disappointment in this collection even higher, as I expected a bigger understanding of the source material from her. Finally, I have not had the chance to read any of the other authors from the collection and I am willing to try reading them again. If you have read this collection and other works by the authors in it, feel free to suggest what should I read by them.
Finally, what is your opinion about this collection and the stories in it? Is there something that I am missing that could change my mind about it?