I was sold on this book when I heard somewhere along the bookish grapevine that it was Jane Eyre, if Jane was a murderess. I was also sold because Lyndsay Faye is one of my favorite historical mystery writers; I trusted her to do justice to the original Jane. Jane Steele is not a retelling. Rather it is the story of a woman whose life contains echoes of the novel. She has a cruel aunt who sends her away to an even crueler school. She is hired as a governess by a man named Thornfield. Beyond these and other echoes, however, Jane Steele and the eponymous character easily stand on their own. I had a great time reading this book.
Jane Steele lives in a cottage on her aunt’s property with her mother and a housekeeper. The big house is occupied by her aunt and odious cousin. Jane’s mother, a volatile woman, tells Jane mere hints about an inheritance.Shortly after her mother’s suicide, Jane is assaulted by her cousin. She pushes him into a ravine. This is her first murder. The original Jane was not exactly meek, but this new Jane is far, far from being meek. After Jane goes to school, she learns hard lessons in trust and survival. The headmaster plays the students off one another, encouraging them to betray one another in exchange for food. Jane makes her escape from the school after a dramatic confrontation.
Jane and a friend flee to London where, of all things, Jane makes a living writing “last confessions”—fictional accounts of the last hours of condemned criminals. Though Gothic as all get out, this part of Jane’s life reminded me very much of Dickens novels. Jane lives a hardscrabble life just on the other side of respectability.
The plot kicks into higher gear when Jane spots an advertisement for a governess at Highgate House, her aunt’s residence and the house she believes she was supposed to inherit. She gets the job with forged letters of recommendation and finds herself in a small Sikh enclave. All of the servants and her pupil are from Punjab. Charles Thornfield was born in Lahore and is Sikh as well. Jane fits in surprisingly well, perhaps because she is not the gently reared Englishwoman Thornfield et al. expect. If you’ll excuse the pun, they all get on like a house on fire.
If you’ve read Jane Eyre, it will be hard to stop looking for stronger parallels between Eyre and Steele. As I said, this is not a retelling. Rather, the echoes of Jane Eyre here are more like little jokes to find. Faye builds a completely different plot for Jane Steele and Thornfield. There’s more than one mystery to be solved and more than one enemy to thwart. Jane has her own past to overcome, as well as Thornfield. This really is a story in its own right—just with bonus jokes.
I had so much fun reading Jane Steele I was a little sad when I came to the end. I enjoyed all of the characters so much I didn’t want to say good-bye.