Review by: Mark Palm
Reader, I murdered him…
When I first read Jane Eyre I have to admit that I was sceptical. It has a vast and dedicated base of fans who claim that it is one of the greatest romantic novels ever written (my wife is one of those people.) I have to admit that I had a chip on my shoulder when I started it. I was expecting to get a high-brow Harlequin romance with secret assignations and wind-swept vistas, but instead I found a subtly subversive critique of gender relations and social class that was also a moving and emotional work that kept me flipping the pages. So when I discovered that Lyndsay Faye, an absolute stone-cold killer author of some of the best period thrillers I have ever read, was going to take a shot at re-imagining Jane Eyre, I was champing at the bit. Ms. Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson was the best Holmes pastiche that I have ever read, and her next three novels, The Timothy Wilde Mysteries, were even better. I cannot urge you enough to read these novels; if someone is writing better thrillers than Ms. Faye I don’t know who it is.
Now a lot of writers have lately decided to re-tell classics of the past by throwing vampires or zombies into the mix, and the results have been amusing, but Ms. Faye is playing a different game here. Jane Steele is an original story, loosely based on the plot and themes of Jane Eyre, featuring a new heroine, with a new and different perspective. For one, our Jane is a fan of the Bronte novel, and often comments on the similarities and differences between the two Jane’s stories, going so far as to use quotes from the novel to open each chapter.
From the very beginning of Jane’s story we can tell that things are not quite right. Even though her mother tells her that she is the heir to Highgate House, the two live in a small cabin on the property while Jane’s Aunt Patience and her son Edwin claim the manor. After Jane’s mother dies, things only get worse. Cousin Edwin attempts to rape Jane, and Jane promptly sends her attacker to a well-earned death. Then Jane decides to attend the Lowan Bridge school for girls, so she can receive an education, even though she senses that something is very wrong with the headmaster Vesalius Munt. She’s right of course. Munt is a sadist who keeps the girls in line by encouraging them to betray each other, and even the slightest infraction is punished by withholding food. Lowan Bridge gives Jane a good education, and also turns her into a wolf in girl’s clothings who is willing to steal, cheat and lie in order to protect herself and a younger girl, Becky Clarke, whom Jane takes under her wing. After Becky tries to innocently hold Munt to the same standard as the girls, he decides to starve her to death. And once again Jane has to take matters into her own hands to save an innocent.
The two girls flee Lowan Bridge in the middle of the night, and end up in London, where they scrape out a meager living. Years pass by and Jane finds herself forced to defend those less fortunate until finally she finds an advertisement that the heir to Highgate House, Charles Thornfield, is seeking a governess to care for his nine-year old female ward. Of course Jane is compelled to go back and see if she can reclaim her childhood home. This is where the true story of Jane Steele begins. As captivating as the beginning of the book is, Jane’s meeting Thornfield and her quest to find her home is the heart of this book. And what a heart!
Ms. Faye has always been a masterful plotter, and this book is no exception. Everyone at Highgate House has a bucket full of secrets, and Ms. Faye takes her time and teases them out in a tale that is as taut and twisted as a steel spring. One of the main faults I had with Jane Eyre was Rochester, who I found as interesting as a plywood board. Ms. Faye gets it right here. Thornfield is a vivid, original character who leaps off the page; informal, funny, and a man of action, Thornfield, as well as his butler, Sardar Singh and his ward, Sahjara, are all living breathing beings. Still, this book belongs to Jane, and it is through her narration, and her dialogue, that we come to know her, and care for her. Self-aware, funny, mordant, but somehow still with an open heart, Jane is the heart and soul of Jane Steele, as is befitting. Ms Faye has out done herself, and by the end of this novel I wanted to stand up and cheer.