REVIEW: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Dear Ms. Faye:
I saw this in the Daily Deals back in November of last year, and I clicked “buy” in spite of some reservations. I was concerned by a description of the book as “Jane Eyre meets Dexter.” I recently read a suspense book that featured murdering protagonists that also touted the “Dexter” comparison. I was reminded (since I didn’t care for that book) that I have chosen not to watch the Dexter television show or read the Dexter books in large part because I find the premise of an ethical serial killer unbelievable and borderline offensive.
But I couldn’t resist the Jane Eyre connection, nor the tag line, “Reader, I murdered him.” I’m glad I took the plunge.
Jane Steele is a nine-year-old living in a cottage with her French mother on the grounds of the family estate, Highgate House. Her odious aunt Patience and cousin Edwin live in the main house, though Jane’s widowed mother tells her that the house and estate really belong to Jane. Jane’s mother is fanciful, beautiful, mentally ill and given to self-medication. She commits suicide one day and Jane’s aunt promptly resolves to send her away to Lowan Bridge School, an institution run by one Velasius Munt.
Jane’s impression of Munt on their first meeting is not a positive one, and she runs off. She’s followed by 13-year-old Edwin, who has a creepy fascination with Jane and has already once exposed himself to her (again, she’s only nine). When Edwin tries to assault her, Jane fights back and then, in a rage, pushes him. He falls into a ravine and dies.
This is the beginning of Jane’s career as a “murderess”, and like several of her other killings, it’s not really murder. Later it’s characterized by another character as Jane fighting off a rape, but when I reread the scene, it’s clear that Edwin had already stopped his assault, so that’s not entirely true. Still, his death was essentially an accident.
I’ll go further and possibly into what might be seen as spoilery (but I’m being spoilery in the service of letting people know what to expect) – characterizing Jane as “serial killer” is absurd. She doesn’t stalk victims, nor does she get sexual satisfaction from killing. She does deliberately kill, more than once. But there are extenuating circumstances and (varying degrees of) remorse, in each case. Even where she doesn’t feel specific remorse for the victim, Jane herself believes she’s going to hell and is a bad person, both because of the killings and other facets of her personality (she’s a facile liar, for one).
Jane ends up at Lowan Bridge School, which is a predictably grim place. Munt rules with an iron fist, controlling the pupils by withholding food. (Other, even more unsavory punishments that take place behind closed doors in Munt’s office are alluded to.) The girls look out for each other, but their camaraderie is strained by witch-hunting sessions Munt calls Reckoning. There, students are expected to confess their own sins or to rat out each other. Jane’s bedmate, Taylor (students are called by their last names at Lowan Bridge) tells on Jane for crying in her sleep, earning Taylor a meal (she’d previously been starved for several days for a petty infraction). Jane is then punished, for the crime of mourning her “tainted” mother.
Years pass at Lowan Bridge, and Jane forms a close attachment to another student, Clarke. Jane sees the younger Clarke as unfailingly good in contrast to her own presumed wickedness. It’s true that Clarke is incapable of lying, which causes problems in an environment where lying is sometimes necessary for survival. It’s concern for Clarke’s survival that leads Jane to her second, rather impulsive killing (with a letter opener!). Jane and Clarke then flee to London.
Mid-19th century London is not hospitable to two girls with no money, friends or relations. Through luck and Jane’s ingenuity, they manage to get a roof over their heads with Hugh and Bertha Grizzlehurst. Hugh composes and sells penny sheets detailing lurid crimes (Jane first meets him hawking the tale of the most recent horrific crime that she herself has committed).
Jane hires herself out to Grizzlehurst as a writer – his sheets sell even better thanks to her talent for vivid purple prose (his own prose tending to incomprehensibility). The Grizzlehurst home is a brief haven for the two girls, but it’s not a happy home (Hugh beats his wife). Things eventually fall apart, and Jane spends several years on her own in London, lonely and scraping by among the dregs of society.
It’s when Jane happens upon an advertisement for a governess position at Highgate House that her fortunes change. Inexorably drawn back to her past, and to the possibility that she herself is the true heiress to the estate, as her mother always claimed, Jane applies for the position under a false name and is hired.
It’s at Highgate House that the story truly takes off. I just now realized that Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, and Jane Steele follows that template. But it also upends it.
For instance, this Jane’s Rochester is Mr. Thornfield, and while he’s tortured, he’s much more pleasant to be around than the grumpy Rochester. He’s sardonic but clearly kind-hearted. His household is an unusual one. Charles Thornfield was raised in India and is late of the Punjab region, where he labored as a surgeon in the Sikh wars. His ward, Sahjara, is half-Indian and half-English, and his household servants are all Sikhs. The most prominent of the servants is Mr. Sardar Singh, who is ostensibly Charles’ butler and who becomes a friend to Jane.
One of the pleasures of this novel was seeing Jane land, after all her trials, with truly good and decent people. Highgate House becomes a refuge for her, and Charles, Sardar and Sahjara quickly become a family of sorts. For Jane, who still misses Clarke, this is balm to her soul.
But of course, there are complications. The growing attraction between Jane and Charles could be a pleasant complication, except that he flatly refuses to touch her (he habitually wears gloves for reasons that aren’t explained until late in the story). Also, Jane is still trying to find out if Highgate House is rightfully hers, and naturally she becomes more ambivalent about what she’ll find as she comes to care ever more about the house’s current residents. Then there’s the mysterious work being done in the basement, which Jane is warned away from several times. (This was my favorite “upending Jane Eyre” touch – the basement, not the attic!)
There’s also a subplot that dominates the last quarter of the story, one that took a while for me to even recognize as a distinct subplot. I think I assumed it was related to the basement hijinks (it wasn’t), and honestly it didn’t interest me as much as other parts of the story, at least early on. It has to do with what happened back in India to leave Charles and Sardar traumatized and Sahjara orphaned, some precious jewels that were hidden and then stolen, and a very menacing adversary of Mr. Thornfield’s who thinks that Charles knows where the missing jewels are hidden.
The resolution of the jewel mystery and the ending of the novel felt a bit odd to me – involving a troubled villain whose existence I had previously not paid much attention to. Though this part felt a little tacked-on, I did come to realize that hints about the character had been sprinkled throughout the story. The events lend a slight bitterweet cast to the ending though.
Jane Steele is a great book – the writing is sharp and clever and the characterization is strong. The villains are villainous but it’s the heroine and other “good” characters that shine – they are realistic but compellingly lovable. The connection to Jane Eyre is never laid on with too heavy a hand; the little similarities sometimes felt a bit like Easter Eggs left for the reader to find.
In addition to the obvious Jane Eyre influence, Jane Steele apparently owes something to Nicholas Nickleby, which I’ll confess I’ve never read. But this book is far more than simply a homage to another novel or novels – it’s a unique and compelling story all its own. Jane is a wonderful heroine – smart, resourceful, with a greater capacity for love and goodness than she realizes. My grade for Jane Steele is an A-.