Having enjoyed Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde trilogy, I was both intrigued and dubious when I heard that her new novel, Jane Steele, was going to be a retelling of Jane Eyre. I always have doubts about books that are based on or inspired by classic novels and usually try to avoid them, but because I loved Faye’s other work so much I was happy to give this book a try.
Once I started to read, I quickly discovered that Jane Steele is not so much a retelling of Jane Eyre as a homage or tribute to Jane Eyre. Jane Steele herself is a fan of the Charlotte Brontë classic, which she reads over and over again, and she can’t help noticing that there are some unmistakable parallels between her own life and Jane Eyre’s.
Like the Brontë heroine, Jane Steele has an unhappy childhood. She and her widowed mother live in a cottage in the grounds of Highgate House, the home of her late father’s family. When her mother dies a sudden and unexpected death, Jane finds herself at the mercy of her cold-hearted Aunt Patience and vile Cousin Edwin, but unlike Jane Eyre she takes drastic measures to defend herself against them. I won’t go into too much detail, but the words “Reader, I murdered him” on the front cover should be a clue!
Sent away to Lowan Bridge School, Jane’s life again seems to be following the same pattern as Jane Eyre’s. Lowan Bridge is a harsh and forbidding place, presided over by the tyrannical Vesalius Munt, and the only positive thing Jane takes away from her time there is a close friendship with a younger girl known as Clarke. Forced to resort to murder again – not just once but several times, though always to protect herself and her friends – Jane eventually has the chance to return to Highgate House as governess to Sahjara, the young ward of the house’s new master, Mr Thornfield.
As Jane settles into her new position – and begins to search for evidence that will prove she is really the rightful heir of Highgate House – she gets to know the new inhabitants of her childhood home. Mr Thornfield has recently returned from the Punjab and all of his servants are Sikhs, including the butler Sardar Singh, whom Jane suspects of not being all he appears to be. Mr Thornfield himself, as you’ve probably guessed, takes the role of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, but before Jane Steele can allow herself to love him, she wants to know how he will react to the revelation that his new governess is actually a serial killer…
You may be thinking that I’ve given away the entire story here, but I can promise you that there’s still a lot I haven’t told you. More than half of the novel is devoted to the time following Jane’s return to Highgate House, the development of her romance with Mr Thornfield (a more instantly likeable character than Mr Rochester, by the way), and an intricate mystery involving stolen jewels, of which I’ll say no more other than that it felt like something Wilkie Collins might have written.
I liked Jane Steele but I can’t say that I loved it as unreservedly as most other readers seem to have done. The first half of the book was great – Jane has a very distinctive, darkly funny narrative voice and it was fun to spot the echoes of Jane Eyre in the childhood and school chapters. I also enjoyed reading about Jane’s adventures in London (before starting her governess job) and the Dickensian characters she meets there, such as Mr Grizzlehurst, publisher of the “Daily Report of Mayhem and Mischief”.
The second half of the novel felt quite different from the first, with the focus on the stolen treasure and the history surrounding the Anglo-Sikh Wars. I have read a lot of historical mysteries set in the Victorian period, as well as a lot of Victorian sensation novels, and I just didn’t feel that I was reading anything new here (apart from the details of Sikh culture, which were interesting to read about). It didn’t help that this part of the story includes a lot of long accounts of past events and people we previously knew nothing about. I found it difficult to care about this new set of characters and just wanted to get back to reading about Jane and her life.
This is only a small criticism, though, of what was otherwise a very enjoyable novel and I do love the fact that Lyndsay Faye avoided writing a simple retelling and instead came up with something so brave and imaginative. I would personally have preferred another Timothy Wilde mystery, but having written three of those books I can understand why Faye might have wanted to write something else, and I think Jane Steele will have wider appeal. Reader, you’ll probably love it.
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of Jane Steele for review.