Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

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Funny Once

Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson

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I saw Nelson read from this collection of short stories at the Southern Festival of Books last year. They’re all in the contemporary realist genre, set in the midwest and southwest. A few of the characters are either teachers of writing or students in a writing class. They find connection in unexpected places. Their relationships with the people they “should” be close to are in the process of falling apart, while they feel close to people who are only tangentially connected to their lives–exes, former stepchildren, eccentric neighbors. Her characters are ordinary people with sometimes slightly sleazy problems. The final, longest story in the collection is about three grown children putting their dad in a nursing home. If you like short stories in this genre, these ones are funny and insightful.

The Opposite of Lonely

The Opposite of Lonely: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan

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Marina Keegan died in a car crash 5 days after her college graduation; this book gathers the writing she did while in school, including the title essay, which I read online before I heard about this book. That essay is about the kind of feeling a lot of us get around graduation time: nostalgic, proud, happy, full of potential and possibilities, super close to all the friends who are about to scatter. I wrote a valedictorian speech along some of the same lines as this 12 years ago, and it only took about a year for me to feel like I’d manufactured that feeling because it was what I wanted to feel at the time. I don’t say that to cheapen Keegan’s experience and what it must mean to her friends now, but I do wonder how she would have looked back on this writing later on if she’d had the chance.

The cynical question is whether these stories would have been published if Keegan had lived. It’s impossible to say, but I think she had at least as much talent as several creative writing grad students I’ve known, with less experience. Some of the stories are typical subject matter for an undergrad workshop, young men and women in complicated relationships with each other, their exes, and their parents, but others are more far out, like the one set on a doomed submarine, or the one about the government contractor in Iraq sending hopeless emails. Some of them make me wonder how someone so young could have had the information and life experience to allow her to write these kinds of things, and that’s probably a sign she was the real deal. It’s a shame that this book is all of her we’ll ever have.