If you could make a wish list for books, near the top might be this: how about a writer who has produced intelligent and entertaining historical fiction taking on a retelling of Jane Eyre, and enhancing it so that it omits the slower bits and adds very clever, innovative, and humorous ones instead? Who wouldn’t wish for that? And here we have it, with Lyndsay Faye and Jane Steele.
It may seem odd to apply the label of “adorable” to a retelling that refashions Jane as something of a serial killer, but it is indeed, and Jane is not as bad as she thinks she is, at any rate. (Indeed, Faye writes that she was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, in which Brontë wrote: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.”)
In that Preface, it is worth noting that Brontë further elaborates:
“These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is — I repeat it — a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.”
At any rate, this book, subtitled “A Confession,” is set in 1851, and has Jane Steele reading over and over “the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, first published in London in October 1847.” Jane Steele, though, has the second edition published a year later, with the Preface quoted from above, and reflecting on the reviews, responses and speculation surrounding the novel.
As the story begins, Jane “Stone,” who has suffered a childhood similar to that endured by Jane Eyre, answers an ad for a governess at Highgate House, which happens to be the very place in which she grew up as Jane Steele. It was at Highgate when Jane was 9 that she had a most unfortunate encounter with her slimy cousin Edwin, beginning her account “with the unembellished truth: Reader, I murdered him.”
I wouldn’t want to quote too much more and ruin all the delights interspersed throughout this story, which, like the original Jane Eyre, has much to say about race, class, sex roles, religion, and social conventions.
Many chapters begin with an apropos quote from Jane Eyre, and some of the names and places encountered by Jane Steele are just similar enough to those in Jane Eyre to make you wonder why the very intelligent Jane of this later version doesn’t wonder at the coincidences.
But there is also much new here, including a significant plot line involving British colonialism in India; the Punjab; the British Sikh Wars; some lovely writing (e.g., “Unsettled, I cast my eyes out at the lingering snowfall, the spun-sugar dust coating the bare limbs of the trees.”); and of course, some great understated romance. (Although it must be said that Faye takes a more modern approach toward expressing passion than did Charlotte Brontë.)
Evaluation: If you love Jane Eyre, I can’t imagine you won’t love this book as well. Faye does an outstanding job in re-imagining Jane’s story in a most amusing and satisfying way.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016 (publication coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth)