The high concept description of Jane Steele, by Lydnsay Faye, is “What if Jane Eyre were a serial killer?” For some people, that’s enough to make the book irresistible. I have to confess that the prepublication materials for the book, which took the famous quote from the original Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”) and juxtaposed it against the quote from this book (“Reader, I murdered him”), were enough to sell me on the book. If you’re the sort of person who’s fallen in love with the idea of this book from these two lines, you don’t need to read the rest of the review. Just put a hold on the book and enjoy.
But if you decide that the book is likely to be silly, a one-note takeoff, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and therefore decide to avoid the book for that reason, you would be cheating yourself out of a great fun read, a book that has brought me more laugh out loud moments than anything else I’ve read all year so far.
Jane Steele, a homage of sorts to Jane Eyre, shares a few things in common with the classic: both are first person narrations by a young woman in Victorian England, both women are orphans and have difficult relations with their other relations, both are sent to horrifying boarding schools to get rid of them, both end up as governesses for well to do, mysterious and brooding men with sinister secrets in their past. Jane Steele, the heroine of this book, even reads Jane Eyre and is a big fan, quoting from it often and approvingly (though she’s not above critiquing some of the other Jane’s less-than-brilliant choices), but her approach to the difficulties of her life is a little different from Jane Eyre’s. Instead of suffering in silence, she’s wont to taking action, and sometimes that action includes pushing a tormentor into a gully where he breaks his neck, or stabbing someone with a letter opener, or poisoning someone, or — well, you get the picture.
And yet, Jane is such a vivid person, so winning and alive and so much fun to follow through London and environs, and the people she kills are people who absolutely do deserve to die (the author is wonderful at creating true villains; Dickens and Wilkie Collins would be proud of her!), that her actions seem perfectly reasonable and even meritorious in context.
You don’t have to love Victorian novels to enjoy this one, but if you have a taste for the Brontes, or Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, you will really enjoy the way the author sets up her plot, drops her hints, and even names her characters (a police officer whose name is Constable Quillfeather? A lawyer whose name is Cyrus Sneeves? And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg). Jane manages to have a rather modern sensibility without feeling like an anachronism, and her droll sense of humor makes you want to read certain passages aloud.
The plot concerns Jane’s mysterious origins and her possible title to the house on the outskirts of which she was brought up, and the still more mysterious past of her employer, Charles Thornfield, and his very interesting household of Sikh servants and companions. There’s missing treasure, there’s warrior women and the underside of London, there’s intrigue and romance and suspense, and it’s all carried off in such great style and with such a sense of fun the book is practically irresistible. Even Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, would approve. Check it out for yourself!
And, as an added bonus, if you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this book definitely counts as a historical novel set before 1900, so you can feel virtuous while you’re enjoying yourself. What’s not to love?