Book Review: Jane Steele
by Lyndsay Faye
Penguin Random House
(advance review copy via NetGalley.)
Reader, I stayed up hours past my bedtime reading this. Two nights in a row! It was fascinating. Pacing and plot twists genuinely surprised me, especially in the final “just one more…” chapters of sneaking looks at the clock in between diving back in to see what happened next and how things resolved. This was definitely not the reaction I remember having to reading Jane Eyre when it was assigned in 7th grade.
The publisher’s blurb describes Jane Steele as “A reimagining of Jane Eyre as a gutsy, heroic serial killer” and yes, that’s accurate, up to a point. There are of course, parallels in the plots: Sad childhood, orphaned and unwanted/mistreated by relations in drafty English manor, then miserably cruel boarding school, check. Position as governess in mysterious English manor house, including secrets and strange attraction to owner, check. Melodramatic plot twists to spur tension and adventure to its climax, check. But, despite the description, or how easy it would be to say something like “Jane Eyre fused with Dexter” as some kind of pop culture/literature trope shorthand, that sells short a book I stayed up past my bedtime reading for two nights in a row.
Yes, it’s a riff on some of the plot points of Jane Eyre, where this Jane, Jane Steele, escapes some of her misery, and solves some of her problems with murder and revenge. The murders, and Jane’s perspective on them do drive the plot in appreciably different directions from the plot of Jane Eyre, while Faye’s choices about the manor and London settings, and construction of narrative voice and characters keep the Gothic and historical feel intact. What’s even more interesting is the ways both the novel, and Jane as a character are self-aware and aware of Jane Eyre. Short passages from Jane Eyre serve as epigrams for each chapter, and the narrative includes Jane Steele reading, and feeling for Jane Eyre’s plight and misery. And then Jane Steele very consciously calculates her own way and her own needs to survive and move forward and get what she wants.
That’s the crux of it, that’s the change. It’s not the murders that set this apart, or Jane’s calculating, unladylike appetite for violence as a solution to her problems, or even her tendency to laugh at macabre situations or conversations. While those character traits definitely set both Jane and her story apart, keeping it lively and driving the adventure forward, that’s not the biggest and most enjoyable difference.
What’s different is the fact that Jane takes an active (yes, bloodthirsty) role in problem-solving to control and change her circumstances, to get what she needs and go where she needs to be to survive.
I was a little nervous approaching reading this, because I’m really squeamish, and I was afraid that a Gothic murder spree would read as full of gory entrails. But the murders are more about revenge and expedient survival than gore-enjoyment, thanks to perfunctory description of the actual act. Which makes sense for cultivating the Victorian Gothic female narrator: a narrator living in a world where a male doctor is abashed to touch a governess’s sprained ankle probably wouldn’t dwell on describing spilled intestines.
Even as a multiple murderer, she becomes less of a caricature than some of more minor supporting characters (especially earlier on in the story, leaning pretty heavily on Gothic types), because she evolves over the course of the story. Like Jane Eyre, Jane Steele does learn to love, but she does so in such a much more satisfying way that honors emotional complexity and keeps from being mawkish.
Don’t let the description of this as “Jane Eyre but she’s a serial killer,” make you decide it’s a parody, or a gimmick. There’s a genuinely surprising series of mysteries and secrets revealed. There’s love and acceptance that rings true. The nods to history and literature are wonderfully self-aware but still fit with the mood and tone. Jane works with what she has available to help her survive and get what she needs.
Jane Steele works.