Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye, is being touted as a re-imagining of Jane Eyre. (See for instance, here). This intrigued me, but it also made me anxious. For the first couple of chapters I worried whether Faye could deliver – the stakes are high when it comes to meddling with one of the Bronte’s classics.
And then I realised: Lyndsay Faye hasn’t reworked Charlotte Bronte’s pivotal book – no matter how many reviews tell you she has! She is paying tribute to it. This distinction is important, to me anyway, and once I pinpointed that I relaxed into this book and really enjoyed it.
In this homage, Jane Eyre is a reference point and a source of solace for the book’s heroine Jane Steele (‘I have not yet got out of the habit of reading Jane Eyre, come to that’). Our two Janes share a common heritage – orphaned and at the mercy of unkind relatives – and like her literary heroine, Jane Steele has limitations on her life options due to her sex and class. But Jane Steele asserts her agency over her fate much more ambitiously than Ms Eyre; she commits murder, five time over. ‘Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important’.
Jane’s murderousness is entirely contextualised (they all deserve it) and throughout the novel we remain on her side, not withstanding the rising body count. Her criminal past presents a bit of a challenge when she inevitably falls in love with Charles Thornfield, a much more likeable aristocratic hero than Mr Rochester.
Already, falling in love with Charles Thornfield had meant dropping truths in his path like so may bread crumbs, and though he may have approved my stabbing of Jack Ghosh, however could I justify four previous killings?
How does she indeed….? No plot spoilers here.
In the second half of the novel we’re introduced to a mystery that reaches deep into the imperialist intrigues of the East India Company. At times, the complicated plot around the Sikh resistance in the Punjab sat a little uneasily with the tone of the rest of the book, and as I read it I wondered whether it could be successfully fused with the first half of the novel. Although a little convoluted and not quite cohesive enough, this imperial detour does deliver further depth to the story-line, as well as literary hints of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.
Keeping true to the tone of Jane Eyre, Jane Steele is written in the elevated style of the classics:
You cannot know what it means, reader, to have thought yourself despised for your unworthiness for a period of years – to have supposed your very nature poison, and your friend right to have abandoned you – and to learn thereafter that you were loved not too little but too well.
This style worked for me as I found it gave further texture to the novel; I love the flowery prose of this genre. But I can imagine this might alienate some readers, in the same way that the penmanship of classic novels can.
Lyndsay Faye has adopted the language, the atmosphere and the narrative devices from Victorian-era novels, and has molded these into her own creation. We’re presented with key tropes from Victorian novels – cruel headmasters, London’s bawdy underbelly, inheritance, Byronic heroes, imperialism – with murder, sex, larger than life characters and some witty banter thrown in. Jane Steele is melodramatic, clever and fun to read. Most importantly, it pays tribute to the best parts of Jane Eyre without trying to revamp it beyond recognition.