Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Headline Review, 2016, 420 pgs.
Jane Steele is two things: a fan of the novel Jane Eyre, and a murderess. When her mother dies, and her cousin is killed by her hand, Jane’s life changes forever – she is exiled from the manor house she was once supposed to inherit. First taken to a cruel girls’ school, before braving the streets of London, making a paltry living selling penny-dreadfuls, Jane’s life is far from easy. One day, however, she sees an advert for a governess needed at her old home but the new inhabitants are far from what she expected. Can Jane reclaim her inheritance, or will her murderous ways catch up to her?
[Spoilers for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre…)
A sort of ‘pastiche’ of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele has much of the same general plot-line, but with a murderous twist. Like Bronte’s heroine, Jane Steele lives with a relative who has been ordered to provide for her after the death of her parents, and hated by this same relative with a passion. Like Eyre, she is banished to a terrible all-girl’s school, declared ‘wicked’ by over-zealous and fascistic teachers, whilst befriending an emaciated and sickly fellow student whose friendship comes to define her later life (the Eyre equivalent being the tragic Helen Burns). Unlike Eyre, she spends some time homeless in the dangerous streets of London alongside this friend (who avoids dying of consumption, thankfully), and eventually makes a slim living selling and writing penny dreadfuls. Like Eyre, she later becomes a governess to a Byronic gentleman, whose young ward is similarly related in a mysterious way, like Rochester’s ward is to him. However, this a Bronte-like story with a twist: Jane Steele has murdered a number of men.
Now, one weakness to this novel is in the way that Steele’s murderous qualities are defined: as if she is a burgeoning psychopath. Which she seems not to be. There are moments where one wonders if our lead is going to become an out and out villainess, and the starting paragraphs and earlier chapters suggest this might be so – but as the story continues, I would say Steele is perhaps simply more a modern-seeming woman in comparison to the meek and orderly Jane Eyre, but certainly not a danger. Headstrong and protective, but not sadistic. This can be gleaned from the way in which her victims were, largely, deserving of her wrath (not to condone murder, but in this fiction she seems rather justified as her victims are mostly loathsome…) and often done in defence or protection of another. In the realm of fiction, this hardly seems the doings of a cruel serial killer. I was, at first, confused by why the novel seemed to emphasise her ‘evil’ nature, but retrospectively I do think this was an attempt to explain that Jane is not evil as she supposes but a woman put into cruel situations; someone who has nothing and resorts to violence when faced with violence. A psychopathic Jack-the-Ripper-type she is not. Oddly, the blurb and earlier chapters do emphasise this aspect of the novel, but when you look past these weird allusions to her nonexistent psychopathy, this is actually a stronger novel for it.
Jane is an emotional being, and very human. Where a psychopathic murderer would not care about their victims, Jane is haunted by them, though proud of herself at times for acting in violence when protecting another. She feels intense pity for others, she weeps openly, and frets, but she also has a devilishly Machiavellian side which I really quite liked! Where I expected a cold-hearted killer instead we see instead a young woman who is fighting to survive. If her views of herself being wicked are because she is self-deprecating and punishing herself through some cultural guilt of being a fighting woman, then sure! But this doesn’t come across as strongly as you’d think. I actually liked Jane’s character a lot and her awareness of her favourite novel, Jane Eyre, and its mirroring her own life was a wonderful addition. The odd allusions to her ‘villainy’ ended up being largely inconsequential.
Like Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, this book takes the famous Bronte story and plays with it. Where Rhys’ work acted as a prequel, explaining and giving more agency to Mr. Rochester’s secret attic-bound wife, here Jane Steele gives Jane Eyre some secondhand agency. Where Eyre would fret and flee a situation, punishing herself, Steele plots and plans and vengeance is called upon when needed. Steele is a strong female protagonist, viciously protective of her friends and loved ones. A truly remarkable heroine and one I supported throughout.
What was a wonderful change to the typical Gothic romance (a sub-genre this delves into on occasion, much as Eyre does) is the addition of Sikh and Punjab characters, who are the new residents of Jane Steele’s manor home. When she becomes governess, she plans to one day take back her inheritance and reclaim her family home, which she feels has been usurped from her after her mother’s death. She discovers her evil aunt (the mother of her first victim: her abusive and creepy cousin, who she pushes off a cliff in defence after he attempts to assailt her) has since passed, and the house been bought by another man, with some loose connection to it, who is a gentleman and an ex-soldier, and he has brought his Sikh staff with him. Jane’s worldview is opened by the new staff members whose spirituality and backstories touch her in surprising ways, and she discovers, too, that the man of the house, Mr. Thornfield, is an enticing enigma himself. He is filled with some sort of tragic experiences, and his aloof snide manner isn’t dissimilar from Mr. Rochester’s in Jane Eyre – a comparison not lost on Steele. She hides her true identity from her new master and soon grows close to this mismatched household, learning their own difficult stories. A particular favourite of mine was the stoic and kindly Sardar Singh – the head butler and Thornfield’s closest friend; he was wonderfully written and proved to be a moving character in his own right. The drama comes, in this second half, when Thornfield’s own violent past starts to catch up to them. This section of the novel changes from the Eyre storyline, but for the better. It is filled with mystery and, with its plot involving a missing treasure, it starts to resemble Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone too.
So, where this novel’s initial setup of a murderous satire of Jane Eyre might fall flat, the later clashing of backstories and mysterious violent paths makes for a very entertaining thriller with some twists and turns which don’t just end in bloodshed but change Steele’s life forever. Jane Eyre is a favourite classic of mine and I think this one did it some justice and I greatly enjoyed Steele’s character overall. If you can ignore the weird attempts at setting up Steele as some villainess in the earlier chapters (which can be analysed as some strange self-loathing she is experiencing, of course), you’ll likely enjoy this foray into Gothic thriller where everyone, no matter how small they may seem, has a hidden strength and more bite to them than you might expect.