After seeing Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye on Cannonball and on NPR’s Best Books of 2016, I was intrigued. I’ve read Jane Eyre, and liked it–even though it was as long time ago. But a retelling of Jane Eyre, with Jane as a serial killer? I just couldn’t guess how that would work. But it also got consistently good reviews, which was more than enough for me.
I was most curious how Faye would make Jane Steele a sympathetic character as a “cold-blooded killer.” Jane Steele kills her cousin when she is only a child, and she goes on to kill at least four or five more. But Jane Steele primarily kills out of self-defense or desperation. She is sensitive and alone and only trying to survive. Jane Steele is more a story of empowerment of the weak–something of a 19th Century super hero in a long dress. “One of the advantages to being a cold-blooded killer, however, was that I thought nothing in the woods much more dangerous than I was.” (184)
Jane Steele begins the book living with her mother, who suffers from mental illness, in a small cottage on the edge of the property owned by her paternal aunt. Jane and her mother are consistently treated terribly by the aunt. When Jane’s cousin attempts to molest her, she fights him off, pushing him down a ditch and unexpectedly killing him. Terrified, she lies to the lawman when he investigates, and her aunt sends her off to boarding school.
The boarding school is run by a man of pure evil. Children are in terrible condition and half-starved. When Jane’s best friend is directly threatened by him, Jane does what is necessary to save her life. Then the two of them run away to London. In London, Jane is able to make a living by using her creative writing talents to make up “last confessions” of those recently hanged. Her killing does expand, from killing to protect herself, to protect her best friend, and then to protect the woman they rent rooms from. As powerless as women were in those days, especially penniless and young, Jane Steele solves her problems and protects those around her the only way she can.
At one point, Jane sees an advertisement to be a governess for a child of the new master of Highgate House, the estate where she grew up. She goes undercover to see if she can recover the home she was always told was hers. Mr. Thornfield has just returned from the Sikh Wars. His entire staff is Sikh, his butler seems to be more than a butler, and the place seems shrouded in mystery. She inevitably falls in love with him. They are two wounded creatures that work together to figure out what’s been happening. “…and even if we were both poorly stitched together creatures made of scar tissue and regrets, I wanted only to find a way to live in his world more fully.” (258)
I really enjoyed this novel. It was well-written, original, suspenseful, and consistently interesting. Steele’s power and independence, even as she’s treated horribly by a panoply of evil people, were fun to read about. She was a sympathetic character, but it was also refreshing to see her stand up to those that would hurt her. Her friendship from the boarding school was both sweet and heart wrenching. This was a good, memorable book that I would recommend to others.
“I might linger here, and so bury myself in projects that no one should see I was transparent by daylight, a ghost with a soul of smoke and secrets.” (306)
You can read all of my reviews on my blog.