(He) was felled by a strangely skillful blow-as if I had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided that he should stop being alive. – Jane Steele
Stop me if you have heard this one. A girl in mid-1800’s England is orphaned at a young age and sent to a cruel school for young women to learn to be a governess. She later becomes a governess for the ward of a rugged and brooding man, falls in love, flees when the love is not reciprocated, learns the truth about her family, and returns to the brooding man later amidst tragedy. If you recognize this as the plot of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, you are correct. This fact is not lost on the titular heroine of Jane Steele. In fact, the parallels are so interesting to her, Jane Eyre is her favorite book and she re-reads it constantly. But Jane Steele is no tragic and naive woman subject to fits of melancholy. Well, she is that at times. But she is also a murderer (of bad people).
Lyndsay Faye uses the frame of Jane Eyre to tell a new story for modern audiences while investigating the same themes as Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. When Jane Steele’s mother dies at an early age and she is sent to a sadistic school by her hateful aunt. One fateful day she flees the school with her friend Sarah and scratches out a living on the hard streets of London. At the age of 24, she learns her childhood home, Highgate, has new owners and she is determined to take it back, having been told she is the rightful heir. She insinuates herself into the household as the governess of a horse-obsessed young girl, Sahjara, and against her best intentions falls in love with the Byronic master of the house, the mysterious Charles Thornfield. Thornfield is a veteran of the Punjab war waged in India when the East India Company slaughtered the Sikhs by the thousands. Thornfield is Sikh, as are the servants of his household including the enigmatic butler Sardar Singh. Soon Jane is embroiled in a mystery involving stolen treasure and the forces aligned against Highgate to recover it, believing Thornfield has stolen it.
Jane Steele is the second novel I have read in the last few months that references Jane Eyre heavily. The first being The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, the first volume in his brilliant Thursday Next series. This is after I read the original Jane Eyre last fall for the first time, specifically because I wanted to re-read The Eyre Affair. I had no idea Jane Steele was a take on Jane Eyre when I picked it up, I thought the title character was a detective. It turns out I was kind of right in that regard, by the time the novel ends Jane is a detective of sorts and is the one that solves the mystery. Jane Steele is a lighter novel than Faye’s excellent Timothy Wilde series but features the same well-designed story with a memorable and colorful cast of characters. It’s a much easier read than Jane Eyre which I appreciated. There is only so much melancholy and brooding I can take before I start skipping whole passages. I enjoyed Jane Eyre, but I thought it was about 50 pages too long. Jane Steele does not have this problem, it moves quickly is darkly funny, and stays interesting from start to finish.