CULTURE & ARTS
04/21/2016 09:01 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2016

'Reader, I Married Him': The Unfeminist Reason We Love Charlotte Brontë

It’s not Jane Eyre’s most defiantly feminist moment, but somehow it’s the one we cling to.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the only line from an English novel more lavishly overused and adapted than the opening sentence to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice must be Charlotte Brontë’s triumphant climax to Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”

Well, “universally acknowledged” might be a bit strong, but I think we can all agree that it’s more likely to show up not only in modern adaptations of the original classic and in cheeky essays, but in less traditionally literary places: Instagram captions! Facebook engagement announcements! Adorable stationery! Endless wedding blogs!

This spring, in time for Brontë’s 200th birthday, there’s even a new collection of short stories, edited by Tracy Chevalier, entitled: Reader, I Married Him. The stories, penned by celebrated women writers such as Lionel Shriver, Nadifa Mohamed, and Chevalier herself, all claim Jane Eyre as inspiration, though some display that inspiration more clearly than others. “Reader, I married him” doesn’t appear in every story, but some variant appears in many.

If you’re into Brontë reboots (at least of the Charlotte varietal), you’ll get used to encountering that phrase more frequently than you might think necessary, like a literary bay leaf that could have been removed from the final dish altogether, but instead seems to be hidden in every other spoonful, so pointy it threatens to slice your tongue open. 

A few other Jane Eyre do-overs from the past year: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, a one-trick slasher about a contemporary, and fan, of the original novel who just can’t stop killing people; The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, a swoony modernization about Brontë’s supposed last living relative coping with a bookish mystery and a romance with her aloof tutor; and Re Jane by Patricia Park, a retelling set in contemporary New York, where race and gender politics get a much-needed update. Each of these books has its own, sometimes overused or tooth-achingly sentimental deployments of That Sentence, respectively: “Reader, I murdered him”; “Reader, I married him”; “Reader, I left him.”

In her introduction to Reader, I Married Him, Chevalier digs into why this simple sentence has had such lasting power, out of all of the simple and baroque sentences in Charlotte’s oeuvre:

“Reader, I married him" is Jane’s defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story. It is not, "Reader, he married me" -- as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even, "Reader, we married." Instead Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative.

But we’ve come a long, long way since Victorian times. Merely taking the active voice in announcing one's marriage no longer signals a girl-power rebellion; in fact, the proud emphasis it places on the marriage, by 2016, seems like a bit of a throwback to pre-women's lib times. “Reader, I married him” might be the most conventional, even coy way a modern woman could announce the crowning traditional achievement of her life: getting hitched. 

A particularly bookish friend once told me, with some satisfaction, that she’d already settled on the perfect romantic-yet-dignified Facebook post to announce her eventual betrothal to her long-term boyfriend: Yes, “Reader, I’m marrying him.” No wonder the quote is tempting to the modern woman who still yearns toward the safe, established comforts of wedded coupledom, and not just because the pedigree of the allusion is unimpeachable. There’s no Austen-esque irony to sully a joyfully entered union, but it's not drippily sentimental, either. It’s simple rather than bombastic, but holds a subtle note of triumph. “Reader,” Eyre and her many echoes say, virtually clearing their throats to ensure attention is being paid, “I married him.”

Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre. Caption reads: 'Are you happy, Jane ?' Illustrated by Edmund Henry Garrett.
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Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre. Caption reads: 'Are you happy, Jane ?' Illustrated by Edmund Henry Garrett.

The enduring popularity of this phrase, long past a time when a woman using an active rather than a passive voice in describing her nuptials might be considered revolutionary, suggests there’s something other than patriarchy-smashing at play. Today, in 2016 -- 200 full years after Charlotte Brontë’s birth -- women can vote, own property, have high-powered careers, and even have children without direct male involvement if they wish. But the quietly smug affirmation of marital achievement persists. At this point, it reads more as a reassertion of marriage as a high form, if not the highest form, of female personal achievement; boilerplate language for saying “look, stop what you’re doing and recognize that I’ve married a man. I did it.”

Brontë could never have predicted this, but her phrasing, which directly addresses the reader, has never been more well-suited for allusion than now, over a century and a half after its writing. It’s not just the narrator of a first-person novel like Jane Eyre who now expects a wide and indiscriminate audience for her self-documentation -- it’s all of us. Every Instagram snap, tweet and Facebook post assumes that this moment of our lives, whether it’s an engagement announcement or a photo of a brunch table laden with boysenberry pancakes, will be taken in by a faceless crowd, turned into a sort of mini-autobiography of us. There’s no quote better suited to the social media age than Jane Eyre’s utterly self-conscious, slightly boastful, but humbly straining, “Reader, I married him.”

Would she be rolling over in her grave at the constant use of her most popular line to announce weddings and title bridal Pinterests? Maybe not. Based on what we know of Brontë’s own romantic troubles -- and how they were reflected in her fiction -- the rather personal sense of vindication and hard-earned victory that oozes from that quote is no accident.

In 1842, Brontë traveled to Brussels with her sister Emily, where they studied and taught at a boarding school run by Constantin Héger and his wife. By the time she returned to England permanently in 1844, she'd developed strong feelings for Héger, and wrote him several passionate letters filled with longing and heartache. The married professor had, it seems, treated her as an intellectual equal, but her more romantic attentions didn’t lead anywhere. Scholars believe he simply stopped responding to her increasingly desperate letters.

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve read Villette, Brontë’s 1853 novel about a plain British governess who falls in love with a Belgian professor at a Brussels boarding school. Or Jane Eyre, of course. In Jane Eyre, the romantic hero is also an intellectual companion for the heroine. In entreating her to marry him, Rochester insists, “My bride is here ... because my equal is here, and my likeness.” But also like Héger, he is already married. In this novel, Brontë reworks the narrative such that her heroine takes the position of strength -- rejecting mistresshood as beneath her, then returning to claim her husband when he’s been widowed. For Brontë herself, who couldn’t even get the man speculated to have been the love of her life to respond to a letter, there could be no more resounding emotional climax than “Reader, I married him.”

Jane Eyre is a classic work of literature, but it often resonates more with younger readers than other musty old books because it's overflowing with Brontë's determined desires. It’s a straightforward wish-fulfillment narrative, in which all the odds against the heroine, a brilliant but plain girl like the author herself, can’t prevent her from finding her bliss at the end.

While Brontë seemingly longed for and couldn’t find that romantic fulfillment during her lifetime, her hard-earned “Reader, I married him” still speaks to her own, and our own, most basic socially codified desires: to be wanted, to be good enough, to have a companion, to be a wife. It’s not Jane Eyre’s most defiantly feminist moment, but somehow it’s the one we cling to. Despite all that's changed in 200 years, it seems some things stubbornly persist.

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