Author: Lyndsay Faye
Rating: 5 stars
Believe it or not, this wretched, never-ending election cycle is giving me the blues. Compounded with shit storms on twitter, base misogyny on full display everywhere you turn, and the slog that is my personal life, and you can color me exhausted by everything 2016 has been. So I’ve found myself recently turning to books I would term revenge fantasies. Books where women take power that is denied them by society, books where women turn society’s expectations on their head and punish the men who do them wrong.
Jane Steele started out as that, for me. Young Jane goes through a tide of almost unbelievable misery in the first quarter of the book, and it was immensely satisfying when…well, I’ll try not to spoil it too much, but there’s a moment with a letter opener that made me sit up and cheer. I don’t like to think of myself as a violent or vengeful person, but sometimes, with fiction, the catharsis is real.
But Jane Steele is so much more than that. It’s marketed as a murderous retelling of Jane Eyre (the tagline: Reader, I murdered him.), and it is that, sort of. Actually, though, it uses the story of Jane Eyre more as scaffolding for the twisty, pulpy adventures of our titular heroine, Jane Steele. In some ways, it actually reminded me of being an English major undergrad, as Steele approaches her favorite book from an analytical, critical point of view, referring back to it strengthen points in the narrative of her own life.
So, here’s the basic plot. Orphaned young, Jane is at the mercy of her spiteful aunt and her horrible cousin, Edward. Her escape, of sorts, is to Lowan Bridge* school, a truly horrific place run by an unrepentant sexual predator. (This is where that letter opener comes in.) Jane escapes to London with her best friend, has a series of highs and lows there, and eventually learns that her terrible aunt is dead and her old home, Highgate House, has been occupied by one Charles Thornfield, who is conveniently in search of an unconventional governess. Determined to get back what’s hers by any means necessary, Jane takes on a new name, never expecting to fall in love with Thornfield, his precocious charge, or his best friend Sardar Singh and a household full of Sikh soldiers.
Part of what I loved about Jane Steele was the representation. It’s queer. It’s intersectional. Most of Thornfield’s household, including he himself, are Sikhs. Charles was born in Punjab and grew up alongside the people who have given up everything to travel to England to help him protect his ward. They take on the guise of silent servants to blend in better with the English countryside, but they are fully realized characters who act and speak and have agency as opposed to mysterious brown devils. (I’m looking at you, The Moonstone.) I can hardly count myself an expert on Sikhism, but a good deal of the novel hinges around it, and treats the religion seriously, and so I actually learned a lot about something I knew nothing of before encountering this book.
That said, plot-wise, there are some patently ridiculous things. Hidden jewels. Dogged police inspectors. Dramatic falls from horseback. The reason these elements work is that they are so obviously intentional, a conversation Faye has with the pulp adventures of the nineteenth century. Plus, there is the romance. I was willing to stomach pretty much any silly plot detail for the sake of Charles Thornfield, who was a truly magnificent hero.
Jane Steele is a modern heroine set in place centuries past, but one that still resembles our world in ways few people probably care to admit. I read her tale at the perfect moment for me, a time when I really needed the catharsis she could provide. I can’t wait to see what other tricks Lyndsay Faye, a new-to-me author, has up her sleeves.
*Lowan Bridge is also based on the very real Cowan Bridge school, where two of the Bronte sisters died.