In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye re-imagines Jane Eyre as a sort of avenging angel / vigilante heroine figure. Jane Steele is a serial killer — “Reader, I murdered him.” rather than “Reader, I married him.” — but all her killings were either in self defence or in defence of a woman or child facing abuse. It’s an intriguing premise, and much darker than I’d anticipated — the very first few chapters recounted Jane’s sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin, and later on, the boarding school scenes depicted a sadistic headmaster who withheld food from young girls. I love the idea of someone who is powerless wresting control from those who seek to keep her under their thumb. Jane Eyre has long been considered a feminist figure, with her desire for independence over romance, yet with the proviso that the extent of her feminism was very much constrained by the time in which her story was written. So it makes perfect sense to me that a contemporary author’s take on Jane Eyre’s story would bring the feminism much further to the forefront.
Other contemporary touches are evident, even within the story’s historical setting. Contemporary readings of Bronte’s novel have also applied a postcolonial lens, critiquing the novel’s idealization of Englishness and presentation of Bertha Mason, a Creole woman, as a madwoman to be locked away, unimpeachably an “Other.” In the 1960s, Jean Rhys wrote an excellent rebuttal to Jane Eyre’s colonialism, giving Bertha Mason a voice in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Lyndsay Faye takes a somewhat different approach, framing the Rochester character himself as an Englishman who has adopted another culture, in this case Sikh. Rather than privileging the “British” ideal, Faye’s story highlights the horrors that colonialism has inflicted in Punjab, and even when the Rochester figure Mr Thornfield returns to England, he takes with him a young Sikh ward and some practices from Sikh culture.
I love how Faye approaches this tribute to Jane Eyre by acknowledging the aspects that were problematic about the original novel and addressing them head on. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I love the book itself. The beginning was intriguing, and held much promise, but when Jane returns to Highgate House and meets Mr Thornfield and his family, the pace slows quite a bit. The writing is strong throughout, so the book was never a struggle to get through; I just found myself feeling less interested in the second half and wondering when another killing would occur and break the monotony.
Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.