Review: Jane Steele

Imagine a mannered Brontë-era classic — let’s say Jane Eyre — in which our gently-bred heroine serially endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with poise and aplomb ... plus clear personal boundaries, the protective instincts of a momma grizzly, and a very sharp knife.

Jane Steele, dear reader, is just such a book. It is a clever and darkly humorous homage to the beloved Charlotte Brontë novel that allows its heroine to stretch beyond the usual gender-based confines of aristocratic 19th-century England ... into something more swashbuckling and a bit Dexter-ish.

Jane Steele often ponders the similarities between her own life and that of her favorite book heroine, Jane Eyre. Their lives follow parallel paths, and Jane Eyre’s words mirror Jane Steele’s own bleak outlook on life:
Why was I always suffering, always brow-beaten, always accused, forever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win anyone’s favor?
But Jane Steele has a bit more gumption than Jane Eyre, and some weapons training. She will take only so much sh*t off those who seek to hurt her and her loved ones before she takes them out. #sorrynotsorry

If this spin on a familiar literary companion sounds as intriguing to you as it did to me, I hope you’ll join me for more after the jump.





Growing up in mid-19th-century England, Jane Steele doesn’t know who her father was. She loses her emotionally elusive and fragile mother early in life. She lives with her hateful guardian aunt, who according to her mother has stolen her birthright to Highgate House, the estate where she is begrudgingly allowed to remain after her mother’s death.

She turns to Jane Eyre time and again for comfort, marvels at their similar circumstances, and eventually decides to pen her own memoirs in a fashion akin to her fictional soulmate.
I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts... {snip} I relate to this story almost as I would a friend or a lover — at times I want to breathe its entire alphabet into my lungs, and at others I should prefer to throw it across the room.
Jane’s tenancy at Highgate House ends after her cousin dies in an unfortunate accident. The fact that he tried to rape Jane right before he met his tragic end is her little secret, as is the fact that she pushed him.
Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.
This pivotal event frees Jane from her abusive aunt, though she merely leaps from the frying pan into the fire. Furthermore, she leaves Highgate House a “dyed-in-the-wool villainess,” burdened with a “blighted conscience” that causes her to avoid any human interaction that might lull her into inadvertently revealing her misdeeds.
I left such reflections behind me in childhood, at the bottom of the small ravine where my first cousin drew his final gurgling breaths. Yet I find myself pitying the strange, kindly Jane in the novel whose biography is so weirdly similar...
*** 
I could no longer afford to be like my mother; my heart must be carried not on my sleeve but deep in my breast, where the complete darkness might mask the fact it too was black as pitch.
Jane is shipped off to the somber Lowan Bridge school (a nod to the Cowan Bridge school attended by the Brontë sisters), run by the sadistic Vesalius Munt, who harps endlessly upon the imagined wickedness of his young pupils and “redeems” them through starvation. Jane valiantly seeks to protect his hapless victims, and thus becomes proficient at sneaking around and finding things, like a good private detective. Along the way, she discovers some very dark secrets about the boarding school.
It was the boarding school that taught me to act as a wolf in girl’s clothing should: skulking, a greyer shadow within a grey landscape.
Eventually, Munt gets wind of Jane’s friendship with another student and presents her with an impossible choice. She opts for a more proactive solution than her literary doppelganger, Jane Eyre. Free at last, she drifts around London, anonymously surviving on her dark humor and verbal acuity talent for making up bullsh*t stories, then decides to follow up on her unresolved inheritance when she discovers that her aunt has died. She responds to an ad for a governess position at Highgate House, under the name Jane Stone, determined to insinuate herself into the lives of the current usurpers and oust them.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester
in Jane Eyre, 2006
Except that one usurper is the darkly handsome, brooding Charles Thornfield, a doctor recently returned from the Anglo-Sikh Wars, to whom she finds herself deeply attracted. Another is his delightful young ward Sahjara Kaur, whom Jane quickly befriends. There’s a mysterious Sikh butler who knows far more than his station, a Sikh staff imported from the Punjab, the vibrant décor and memorabilia of an exotic life afar, and locked doors beyond which Jane is not allowed to venture. There are whispered tales of love, betrayal, and lost treasure.

One day a sleazy East India Company official shows up making threats, and imagine Jane’s surprise when every single member of the household whips out an expertly wielded blade in defense. No one even bats an eyelash at the little knife she secrets away for emergencies!

“Miss Stone has a knife too, Sack,” Mr. Thornfield drawled. “It’s part of our dress uniform, don’t y’know.”
*** 
Faintly, I asked, “Do many of your guests depart at knifepoint?”
“Oh, I should not say
very many.” {snip} “But when they do, inevitably I find my appetite improved.”
Before long, Jane is neck deep in intrigue and determined to use those detective skills she has picked up through the years to root out their secrets and ensure the safety of her young charge. While remaining hidden from the local authorities who still have some questions about her cousin...

There are interesting contrasts between Jane Steele and Jane Eyre, as well as parallels. Jane Steele refuses to accept the passive female role that society hands her. She challenges the bounds of propriety in ways Jane Eyre never dreamed of. Though Jane Eyre is accused wrongfully of wickedness by those who seek to control her, Jane Steele chooses wickedness, guided by her moral imperative to protect those she loves. The price is isolation; she must keep her heart to herself, to protect her secrets and atone for her sins.
Jane was unfairly accused of wickedness, however, while I can no better answer my detractors than to thank them for their pains over stating the obvious.
***
A word of advice: do not ever kill for love, or you will find yourself tethered, staked to the ground when your cleanest instincts require you to run for your life without a backwards glance. Killing for love is one of the most tangled acts you can commit, reader, in an already twisted world.
As it happens, Jane has met her match in a household riddled with its own labyrinthine network of painful secrets, both past and present. And the tortured Byronic hero who denies himself even the comfort of human touch. Who seems to recognize a kindred darkness haunting her and speaks in similar riddles.
There have already been multiple moments which cause me to suspect your true self a giant deliberately casting a small shadow[, Miss Stone].
***
I could not help but wonder whether Mr. Thornfield, on occasion, hid truth in falsehoods just as I did.
Can she unravel the clues before they all lose everything? Can she learn to forgive herself and her tormentors? Can she wrest back her inheritance? Can she risk love without revealing her sins? Or will she have to murder again?! She’s definitely got her eyes on the household, the various thieving interests, and the law, and they’ve got their eyes on her.

Lest the reader’s enthusiasm suffocate under the characters’ bleak burdens, Jane Steele is full of snarky humor. It also pokes a little fun at the style of the novel it emulates. The protagonist takes a step back all along to ridicule Brontë-era literary conventions or note that she doesn’t have time or patience for silly formalities.
There is no practice more vexing than that of authors describing coach travel for the edification of people who have already travelled in coaches. As I must adhere to form, however, I will simply list a series of phrases for the unlikely reader who has never gone anywhere: think eggshell dawn-soaked curtains stained with materials unknown to science; rattling fit to grind bones to powder; the ripe stench of horse and driver and bog.
Though I loved Jane Eyre in my youth, I’ve grown weary of long-suffering heroines who hide in dark manses waiting for men to usher them out into the world. What a treat to meet a version with more modern sensibilities and the brazen audacity to better put her remarkable brain to work!

What inspired author Lyndsay Faye to create what she calls this satirical riff off the classical Jane? As she explains in the book’s Historical Afterword:
While Jane Eyre needs no introduction, I should mention that Charlotte Brontë’s preface to the infamous second edition thrilled me from the instant I first set eyes on the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.”
These same words caught Jane Steele’s attention as she lovingly perused her second edition, and the result, dear readers, is pure entertainment.

And thus Jane Steele was born, an unconventional take on one of our classical literary heroines and a refreshing re-visioning of a familiar literary landscape. I recommend you visit her world posthaste if a dark and twisty Brontë heroine with a heart of gold and a proven record of ass kicking sounds like someone you’d enjoy getting to know!

This Wench rates Jane Steele...




Comments

  1. Great review Kathi. This was a really great find this year.

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