Review: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

jane steeleReader, I murdered him.
A Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre.

Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

Sometimes a rainy night calls for a deliciously macabre read, and Jane Steele more than fits the bill. Billed as a ‘Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre’ – loosely based, in my opinion, but still heavily influenced by the female-authored novels of the time, our Jane is part serial killer, part protectress of the small and all kinds of wild crazy at times. Each section begins with a quote from the original text that is interpreted by Jane in a fashion throughout the course of her narrative. I was fascinated by Jane, especially as she begins to accept herself for who she is, and for what she has done. She recognizes that her mother was not conventionally good, but also that she was loved.

“If I must go to hell to find my mother again, so be it: I will be another embodied disaster. But I will be a beautiful disaster.”

While I initially found the story a little slow, once Jane commits her first murder at age nine the storyline definitely starts to pick up. I’ll confess to not being terribly upset over the loss of her slimy cousin, and the murder is more happen-stance than deliberate planning. Still, Jane takes to it like a duck to water, and her determination to not let anyone – and men in particular – hold power over her or the people she cares about evolves into a “killer with boundaries” philosophy. This leads to some fairly interesting conversations about the boundaries between good and evil, and specifically evil acts against evil people in the name of good intentions.

“Some memoirs explain social hierarchies by means of illustrative anecdotes, but mine is about homicide, not ladies schools.”

Once her mother has died and her cousin has been dispatched, Jane is left with no other option than to attend the horrid Lowan Bridge School for Girls. Despite her assertion above, Jane quickly susses out how to survive at Lowan Bridge, and how to manage the many layers of punishments that the sadistic headmaster enjoys bestowing on the girls. Tenuous friendships develop, and Jane is drawn to young Clarke – and eventually kills again on her behalf. For me, the story takes off from here, as Clarke and Steele make their way to London to begin life anew. Ultimately, however, Jane’s true nature is revealed, and she parts ways with Clarke in a devastating fashion.  Jane comes into her own, earning a meagre living by re-writing salacious tales for a tabloid and later death memoirs.

Jane spots the advertisement for a governess and eventually returns to Highgate, and the story changes tone yet again, as she begins to develop feelings for the new owner and for his young charge and their staff. I appreciated that Jane could accept Thornfield’s unconventional lifestyle, for she herself was anything but conventional; others would naturally be less inclined to be so accepting. The mystery begins to deepen, as there are mysterious strangers lurking about, searching for missing treasure and threatening the inhabitants of Highgate. Add in some ad-hoc work as a coroner, a Sikh butler named Sardar Singh with a past as murky as Charles Thornfield, some dodgy actions by the sinister East India Company and the possibility of a new life for Jane, and you have a fascinating tale.

While purists may quibble with the liberties taken with the original text, I found Jane’s reflections and observations to be fascinating. Jane and Thornfield are both wounded, and have had to make their own way in their respective worlds, committing acts that others would find nefarious in order to survive. Whether they are able to overcome their own self-doubt in order to accept each other remains up in the air until the very end; learning to accept yourself becomes a vital part of being present to accept another.

Jane Steele is available now from your favourite online, chain or indie bookseller. A copy was provided by the publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9780399169496, 416 pages.