(Book Review) Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

I’m currently a handful of chapters into Jane Eyre with my class of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds. So far, they have one principal complaint: why doesn’t Jane just stop complaining and do something about her unhappy situation? Why doesn’t she fight back against her mean cousin, or stand up for herself at school? I can’t give them satisfactory answers to these questions, but I can gently suggest they read Lyndsay Faye’s Brontë-inspired Jane Steele for a slightly more proactive protagonist.

Jane Steele has a somewhat complicated relationship with Jane Eyre; it’s not a retelling or a sequel, and Faye’s eponymous character has read and admired Brontë’s novel, noticing for herself the parallels between her own misadventures and those of the other Jane. Jane Steele is simultaneously fan and critic of the Victorian classic, eagerly grabbing it from a shelf when in need of comfort, but critiquing its heroine repeatedly, most amusingly for being “the most dismal investigator in the history of literature.” Faye borrows Bronte’s style, and consequently her narrator follows her namesake in addressing the reader directly; hilariously (although creepily), the edition I read has the tag-line, “Reader, I murdered him” emblazoned across its cover. As an admirer of Jane Eyre, although not fanatically so (Anne is my favourite Brontë, after all), I was able to appreciate and enjoy these intersections between the two novels; I would assume a reader unfamiliar with Eyre would still enjoy Steele, although a knowledge of the former certainly informs appreciation of the latter.

Jane Steele begins in much the same way as Jane Eyre; the heroine is the poor relation and, not far into the narrative, dependent of a wealthy family, whose disregard for her is such that she is sent to a boarding school, where she is starved, mistreated, but never defeated – largely thanks to her willingness to violently dispose of those who seek to hurt her. From there, the plot takes a more Dickensian trajectory and style, with Jane and her fellow escapee seeking shelter in London underworld. The painstaking recitation of dialogue and peculiarities of the city’s inhabitants lead to some amusing repartee.

“I’ve no need o’ hassistance when it comes to my broadsides! My broadsides is known ‘ither and yon and every street betwixt!”
“I don’t think positivitical is a word,” Clarke observed.
“Can you prove positivitically that it hain’t?” he shouted in high dudgeon.
“No,” I hastily owned, “but wouldn’t it be better to employ words which actually exist?”

Jane herself has no such trouble with vocabulary, and her narrative voice is one of the great joys of Jane Steele. She narrates in a self-conscious fashion, describing the brilliantly named but hideous headmaster of her school, Mr. Vesalius Munt, as “one of the more familiar literary archetypes,” and she is scathing about the practices of other writers, reflecting that “there is no practice more vexing than that of authors describing coach travel for the edification of people who have already travelled in coaches,” and conceding that, “some memoirs explain social hierarchies by means of illustrative anecdotes, but mine is about homicide, not ladies’ schools.” Jane’s awareness of her own status as the heroine of a bildungsroman, albeit a more violent one than the norm, creates a delightful edge of satire: something else which makes me rather wish I could surreptitiously substitute Jane Eyre for its modern relation in my classroom without attracting the attention of the exam board. As well as being witty and self-aware, Jane fears her own capacity for evil, lending the novel a sense of moral dilemma, as she contemplates that, “my heart must be carried not on my sleeve but deep in my breast, where the complete darkness might mask the fact that it too was as black as pitch.”

I felt that Jane Steele took something of a detour when Jane found her way to the household of Mr. Thornfield (see, I told you it’d be more rewarding if you’ve read Jane Eyre) and became embroiled in Punjabi politics; it seemed like a slightly unwieldy digression, although did add up to a pacy and exciting conclusion. There’s obviously a delicate balance to be struck between reverent observance of the source material and the creation of an original context and, for the most part, Faye achieves this balance; the last third was perhaps, just a little far from my expectations, although certainly represents a unique subplot.

Regular readers of my Fourth & Sycamore reviews may notice that I will read basically anything with a Brontë connection, and Jane Steele joins the list of lively and entertaining works I’ve encountered that utilize the famous sisters’ works. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre, and, like any sensible person, thought it needed more violent murders, you need look no further.

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