Review of Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
by Lyndsay Faye
Ever wondered, “What would Jane Eyre have been like if Jane Eyre had been a serial killer?” That’s the basic premise of Jane Steele, although if I’m being honest, the serial killer aspect was not as intense as I had thought it would be. As a feminist retelling of Jane Eyre this book leaves much to be desired. However, as a kind of mystery/thriller/romance, Jane Steele is a lot of fun. I came to this book from the incredibly upset that was For Today I Am A Boy, and this was exactly the palate cleanser I needed. Don’t get me wrong: there are real, moving, and disturbing aspects to this book. But it ultimately all floats on an almost fairy-tale-like sensibility to it. Lyndsay Faye explicitly references Jane Eyre, both in epigraphs and in the text—Jane is aware of her literary namesake as a novel within this novel’s universe. While the parallels are overt, this is not a simple retelling, and Faye’s creativity is on full display.
Jane grows up poor living in an outbuilding on property that is ostensibly hers to inherit. After her mother dies, her wicked aunt sends her away to a girls’ boarding school to learn how to be a governess. Jane has other ideas: she kills her cousin after he attempts to rape her, and at the boarding school, she kills again. Eventually she ends up in London before eventually returning to the house of her childhood—now owned by the mysterious Charles Thornfield, a distant relative of hers and now potentially her next target. Yet Jane didn’t plan for two things: she didn’t plan to be drawn into the intrigue and shadow hanging over Thornfield and his family—nor did she plan to fall in love.
From the start I recognized that Jane is not nearly as bloodthirsty as I inferred from the cover copy—which might be my bad. I love the idea that she goes around killing men who have wronged her or other women. Yet Faye’s exploration of Jane’s psychology (psychopathy?) is inconsistent and incomplete. Although she examines it here and there—for example, with Jane’s relationship with Clarke—Faye doesn’t seem to want to let Jane’s psychology spoil the possibility of her romance with Thornfield. In my opinion, this is disappointing, because it wastes a truly unique and interesting part of this book and its protagonist’s characterization.
As far as the romance goes, it’s … fine, I guess? You know I’m not a great judge of these things! Thornfield is an interesting enough character, with a suitable number of skeletons in his closet. I appreciate that Faye does not dodge the colonialism of Britain during this time. However, I feel a little awkward at the careful way in which Faye has tried to position Thornfield as white, but it’s ok, he isn’t a dreadful imperialist because he grew up in Punjab and therefore he understands! I’m not sure there is a good or right way to manage this, though.
The plot is a somewhat messy knot of coincidences, villainous scoundrels and rogues, and a fair amount of gumption and moxie from our heroine. The pacing is off—I think this is a rare case in which it helped that I read this in a single day, with some breaks here and there, because I was able to cruise through the story without risk of forgetting details. I really did enjoy reading this—but it’s the kind of enjoyment that comes from a slightly chaotic book.
Finally, like many retellings and re-imaginings, Faye attempts to emulate the diction of Regency novels—yet the result is necessarily ersatz. I think this says something interesting about the evolution of the novel over the centuries. It’s not sufficient to emulate verbiage and use some more semi-colons. There is more to the style of the Brontës; there is a structure to their novels that comes from how they were constructed at the time. Jane Steele, on the other hand, is a modern novel taking a tour of an older world. If Faye attempted to fully embrace the Brontë style, the novel would still feel weird to us, though, because it would be very different from the novels we are used to reading today. So I think there’s some interesting conversation to be had here about how all art is irrevocably a product of its time, etc.
If you come to this hoping for a close retelling of Jane Eyre, you won’t get it. Likewise, as I’ve remarked a couple of times, the serial killer aspect is disappointing. Yet there is a good story here, at its core, and this was a fun book to read. As long as you tilt your head and read it with the right sense of fun and disbelief, I think there’s lots to enjoy here.