A while ago, I read a review of this new book by Lyndsay Faye which indicated that it was about a murderous governess who was a bit like Jane Eyre. While I am not a huge fan of Jane Eyre or the work of the Brontes in general (honestly, Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are both tremendous jerks and their women were well shot of them), I already knew from Gods Of Gotham that Lyndsay Faye was a wonderful writer who manages the historical facts and criminal behavior in her novels quite ably. Plus the idea of a badass governess was irresistible. Jane Steele is like a combination of Jane Eyre and The Punisher. Yes, she has killed five males, but they had it coming. Will this get in the way of her inheritance? Of a possible romance??
Jane Steele is our narrator, and she is honest with us right off the bat. She tells us that she is a murderer, an expert liar, an all around bad person, who happens to have read Jane Eyre and enjoyed it very much. In fact, she sees some interesting parallels between her life and Jane Eyre’s: they are both impoverished orphans, treated badly by aunts, sent to harsh schools to train as governesses. They end up working in homes where they fall for brooding masters with secrets. But these are superficial similarities, as Jane Steele realizes. Jane Eyre hadn’t killed someone and gotten away with it before she even went away to school, for example. And Jane Steele has as many secrets as her eventual employer Charles Thornfield does. Jane is actually quite a sympathetic character and I found myself rooting for her to make it, to get away with murder and still have it all.
Jane tells us her story in chronological order. She has never known her father. Her mother, Anne-Laure Steele, was a beautiful Frenchwoman who committed suicide but had once told Jane that Highgate House, the estate on which Jane’s aunt and cousin Edwin live, is meant to be Jane’s. Aunt Patience is a nasty piece of work (although her story, revealed much later, sort of explains the reasons for that), and Jane’s cousin Edwin is a pervert with rape on his mind. I’m not really spoiling anything by telling you that he is Jane’s first victim. After her mother’s tragic death and Edwin’s demise, Jane goes off to Lowan Bridge School, which turns young women into governesses. The headmaster Mr. Munt is a sadistic tyrant who finds ingenious ways to turn the girls and staff on each other, particularly trying to turn Jane against her friend Clarke and both girls against a teacher who has been fighting off Mr. Munt’s unwanted advances. I won’t tell you how Jane gets out of there, but she eventually runs off to London where she finds lodging and work as a writer of gallows confessions for a cheap newspaper. She also drinks, occasionally smokes opium and generally takes care of herself and her friends when she can. Jane feels that she is essentially a bad person, doomed to hell anyway (just like her mother for committing suicide), so she isn’t one to moan and cry over her fate. Through the newspapers, Jane discovers that Aunt Patience has died and Highgate House has passed into the hands of a relative of her aunt’s named Charles Thornfield, who is seeking a governess. Jane decides to assume an identity as governess Jane Stone, forge her own references and apply for the position, which she gets. And thus the real fun begins.
The Thornfield household is unorthodox to say the least. Charles’ butler and staff are all Sikhs. Charles was a “company man,” i.e., part of the British East India Company, and grew up in the Punjab. His ward is the daughter of a British company man and a female Sikh, both deceased. When Jane arrives at Highgate House, it looks quite different from the way she left it in childhood. Her objective is to spend time there and try to get in contact with a lawyer mentioned in old correspondence of her mother’s who might know what kind of inheritance, if any, Jane is entitled to. Jane is prepared to kill Charles if necessary, but that could prove to be complicated. Ward Sahjara, 11, is a darling girl who thinks of nothing but horses, a passion that Jane shares. The turbaned butler Mr. Singh seems to have something more than a servant’s relationship with his master, and he shows Jane a billiard room filled with knives and other exotic weaponry that both he and Charles know how to use. And Charles is a mysterious and handsome man who wears gloves always and warns Jane to stay out of the basement! No, there’s no crazy wife down there, but naturally, Jane is going to have to check it out. The relationship between Jane and this quirky household deepens with time; their mutual interest in and dexterity with weapons is both hilarious and awesome. Of course, Jane finds herself falling in love with Charles, but she also knows that her secrets could land her in a hangman’s noose. Moreover, she is learning the household’s secrets, which involve stolen jewels which have gone missing and are of particular interest to other company men Charles has known. As if this weren’t complicated enough, Jane will hear from the solicitor regarding her inheritance, and a police officer from her past happens to be good friends with Charles.
The way these story lines intersect and are resolved is epically entertaining. I absolutely LOVED this novel. I loved the way it showed women’s very limited options and strong smart women who wouldn’t stand for it. I loved the humor in it right alongside the grisly and macabre. I loved the historical detail about mid-nineteenth century England and about the British East India Company. I loved the romance and the ass-kicking. I love Lindsay Faye for writing this in her Historical Afterword:
…it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that this book isn’t rather ridiculous, and be it known that it’s ridiculousness is based in both truth and in fiction.
I think if you read and loved Jane Eyre, you would enjoy this novel. If you never read Jane Eyre or read it and didn’t care for it, you would still love Jane Steele. It’s just brilliant, witty entertainment.