Spoiler warning! There will be some mild plot spoilers for the early sections of Jane Steele in this review. I’m going to try to keep things vague, but it’s difficult to write about without revealing some details.
Even if those in today’s world who never read Jane Eyre (they exist, I’ve met several of them), still tend to know the gist of the story (it is after all, 200 years old by now). Poor, down-trodden and plain Jane has an awful childhood, goes to the worst boarding school ever, then becomes a governess in a big, creepy mansion with a strangely attractive, extremely broody gentleman with an interesting way of wooing women and many deep dark secrets lurking in his past. Hijinks ensue. Just in case there are people who DON’T know what the secrets pertain to (my colleague Ingrid is apparently one of these marvellously unspoiled individuals and I can’t wait to hear her reaction to reading the book for the first time later this year), I’m not going to spoil it for you here.
You don’t need to have read or enjoyed Jane Eyre to enjoy Jane Steele, in fact, I think this is one of those wonderful books that will work on both fans of the original and people who dislike it, because it’s heavily influenced by its source material, but does its very own thing with it. On the surface, there are a lot of similarities – a protagonist named Jane, crummy childhoods involving disapproving aunts and inappropriately behaved cousins, a hellish boarding school, the chosen profession of governess, an engaging little girl to teach, and a gentleman with deep dark secrets in his past and areas of the house that are off limits.
There are also a lot of differences. While Jane Eyre strives so desperately to be good and virtuous(and succeeds beyond what is reasonable to expect from a mere human), Jane Steele learns early on that sometimes it’s easier to just be bad. As a young girl, she accidentally causes the death of her odious cousin when he tries to sexually assault her. Having already taken a hefty leap onto the road to perdition, she’s pretty secure in the knowledge that she’s going to hell, and may as well enjoy herself on the way there. She chooses to go to boarding school to avoid awkward questions and learns early on that there are people who can do terrible things to others in the name of trying to teach them to be good. Psychological torture and emotional abuse is just as bad, if not worse, than physical beatings.
Like Ms. Eyre, our Jane makes some true friends while at school and this helps her in London when trying to make ends meet, before she becomes a governess. Having helped rid the world of a number of dastardly souls, she gets word that her aunt has died and there is a new master in her childhood home. She learns that he is seeking a governess for his ward, and applies, reasoning that having killed before, she might have to kill again, this time to secure her birthright. Mr. Charles Thornfield is not what she expected at all, however. A military physician, having spent most of his life in India, his entire house staff are Sikhs and his ward, the horse-obsessed Sahjara, is clearly half Indian as well. The billiards room is now full of magnificent bladed weapons of all kinds and the basements of the house are off limits, with workmen coming and going at all hours.
Jane does her best to learn his secrets (even throwing herself down a flight of stairs when she’s about to be discovered eaves-dropping), but the more she discovers about him, and his affection for Sahjara and the warm closeness between him and the Sikhs of his household, who are treated a lot more like family than servants, the more she wavers in her own plans to dispose of him. Of course, even as she grows more infatuated, she cannot tell him of her own murderous and decidedly chequered past, but as outside agents seem to threaten the inhabitants of Highgate House and the safety of the little girl Jane has come to love, she determines that she may once again have to use her talent for murder to remove Mr. Thornfield’s enemies once and for all.
I’ve seen Jane Steele described as a serial killer in several of the publicity stories about this book, and I think those articles are misleading. Yes, she kills more than once, but to describe her as a serial killer suggests that this is something she’s doing with forethought and pre-meditation, which is just not the case. The very first time she kills someone, it’s in self defence and it’s an accident, because she pushes her bad-touching cousin hard to get him away from her, and he falls down a ravine. Not exactly cold-blooded murder. Of course, she lies through her teeth to the police and her aunt afterwards and it’s this first death that makes her a lot more likely to turn to extreme violence as a defence mechanism, but she really doesn’t stalk the streets like some vigilante ridding the world of abusive evil-doers.
Our in-book heroine is a great admirer of the book Jane Eyre and each chapter starts with a quotation from that book. Jane sees a lot of similarities between herself and her namesake, but she’s a lot more timid and proactive than Ms. Eyre. She’s fiercely loyal to those she loves and will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to protect them. She’s a skilled and unrepentant liar and rarely regrets her actions, even though some are less than morally upright. It’s also clear that in her years in London before she becomes a governess, Jane has had more than one lover and enjoys the physical affections between men and women. It’s one of the reasons she suffers so because of her infatuation with Mr. Thornfield, who constantly wears gloves and has sworn off contact with other people as a penance for something in his past.
This book was just so much fun and while the first half especially strongly mirrors the narrative of its source material, it went off in a very different direction once Jane has returned to Highgate House as a governess. I really liked the colourful household and especially the skill with weapons displayed by all its inhabitants. I don’t know as much as I probably should about the Anglo-Sikh wars in India, but am going to assume that they were well researched by Lyndsay Faye and that the actions described in Mr. Thornfield and Sardar Singh’s pasts were realistic and based in historical fact. Sahjara was a delightful little girl rather than an annoying plot moppet and the slow-burning romance felt deeply satisfying and suitably impossible at times.
I’m not the first to review this book so enthusiastically, and I hopefully won’t be the last. This is going to be one of those books I gift to my friends to force them to read it, and I have no doubt it’s going to be in my top ten at the end of the year. The Audible version, narrated by Susie Riddell, is excellent. She does such a good job with all of the different accents, including the Indian characters, without ever veering into uncomfortable caricature. With an audio book of this length, it normally takes me longer to get through it, but I actually just sat around at home listening to this one, to get to the end as soon as possible. Really, whether you like Jane Eyre or not, do yourself a favour and check out this book. It really is so much fun, and for the squeamish among you, the murders are not the main focus here.
Judging a book by its cover: As with pretty much everything else about this book, I sort of love the cover. A textured black background that evokes both dark wood and crushed velvet, decorated with a stylised pattern that brings to mind lace or flowers. The various shapes that make up the patterns are bladed weapons, like knives and swords. There are actual anatomical heart shapes, maple leaves, bottles and goblets, as well as some tiny skulls. The pink, purple and red used for the lettering all works nicely too. I would absolutely pick this up in a book store, even if I hadn’t heard very complimentary things about it online.
Crossposted on my blog.