What if Jane Eyre was a bit more daring and embraced the evil within antagonists saw in her? Lyndsay Faye’s latest novel, “Jane Steele” (release date March 22), answers that question in a way that will please both Brontë fans and suspense fans.
Jane Steele book cover. (Photo courtesy of G.P. Putnam & Sons)
15 years after “Jane Eyre” was published, Jane Steele finds herself in a few of the same predicaments. She is an orphan who is supposed to inherit her father’s estate, but is instead mistreated by her aunt and cousin. Eyre suffered the emotional abuse in silence, although she harbored doubts as to the nature of her soul. In contrast, Steele chooses to channel her rage outward. Her long list of actions seen as sinful in early Victorian morality starts with throwing her cousin down a ravine after he attempted to rape her. She embraces the idea that she is a bad seed just like her morally deficient mother.
Unlike Eyre, Steele is self-aware in her narration. Every so often she will hint at knowing the limits of her society and literary convention. She readily admits her vices to her readers. Steele’s narration about life at the boarding school focuses more on her path to murdering the perverted schoolmaster than the daily details. Eyre questions the practice of depriving the girls of the comforts of life in order to teach them “Christian values”. Steele realizes that survival means toeing the line between playing the game and resisting authority. Protecting her friends from harm meant using extreme measures. These experiences only end up hardening her heart.
Steele and Eyre first separate paths after boarding school. While Eyre moves immediately into teaching and governess work, Steele travels to London. Her time in the big city leaves her more inclined to vigilante justice. She makes sure that criminals and abusive husbands meet an unfortunate end. Steele also turns her interest in death into publishing the most gruesome penny dreadful stories she can think of. She turns to work as a governess motivated out of a desire to change her life path. Eyre had no other training besides teaching and tutoring.
Until Jane Steele is drawn, Mia Wasikowska from the 2011 movie “Jane Eyre” will have to suffice.
Mr. Rochester in “Jane Steele” is replaced with Mr. Thornfield , a veteran of the Sikh Wars. His ward is a relative of the former Sikh rulers. Steele becomes both governess and detective in order to uncover why Thornfield is so regretful about his past. Although he shields himself with emotional distance, a present danger from past enemies forces him to get closer to Steele. The history of the Sikh Wars is told through Steele’s efforts to find out the truth. Her willingness to commit murder comes in handy again in order to protect her ward and everyone else in the house. In contrast, Eyre’s main mystery is figuring out why Rochester broods so much.
Steele’s redemption comes in two forms. First, she finds out of the truth of her family identity, which is similar to Eyre’s conclusion. The more emotionally powerful part is how she finds it in herself to realize that she is not as evil as she thinks. Steele saw injustice and took it into her own hands to fix it. Today’s readers would agree and sympathize with her murders in the defense of self and loved ones.
I read “Jane Steele” the first time around despite never reading “Jane Eyre”. Most of the points of similarity were explained through the narrative. I had a few aha moments while rereading, and picked up on the more subtle references to the source material. Readers who can’t remember the plot or never read the original should not feel intimidated.
In a media culture where there are many reinterpretations of classic novels, Faye’s narrative stands out as masterful blend of two genres. “Jane Steele” is both a well researched historical suspense novel and a story that turns 19th century romance tropes on their upside down.