If you know me you know I love a good retelling, and that I fanatically loved Lyndsay Faye’s retelling of Hamlet. Recently I picked up her 2016 Jane Steele, a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Jane Eyre, in which rather than bearing up stoically under adversity, Jane turns to murder to escape her various oppressors. Once again Faye perfectly captures the spirit of the original while adding certain improvements – with both style and modern sensibilities.
Jane Steele has decided to write her memoir, after reading an interesting book called Jane Eyre. However, while she admires Jane E, Jane S has taken a rather different approach to her own life of suffering. It all started with her uncomfortably attentive cousin Edwin, after Jane’s beloved mother dies. In the spirit of honesty, Jane admits: “Reader, I murdered him.” Through her various trials – a cruel boarding school, her time in London – Jane often resorts to this problem-solving method, until one day she discovers that someone has bought her childhood home. Curious, she makes her way there, and is surprised by her feelings for new owner Charles Thoringfield. But can someone as admittedly wicked as Jane really get her happy ending?
I was impressed at how well this book echoed Jane Eyre‘s narrative style, while also feeling like an original story. Jane manages to be simultaneously sympathetic, relatable, and unique in her unflinching homicidal instincts. The murders themselves become a sort of feminist commentary – at the time this book (and the original) are set, the options for women to succeed are few, and the opportunities for them to suffer are boundless, and so from the beginning Jane’s victims are archetypes for those who oppress women: Jane’s cousin is a sexual predator as well as a demanding relative, the school’s headmaster shames and torments the girls in the name of religion, a later victim abuses his wife, and so on. This allows the reader to feel righteous glee as through murder Jane rejects and destroys these individuals’ harmful and/or misogynist messages.
To balance out the gore and social justice, Jane has her share of tenderness, love, and friendship from her mother, school friends, and others along the way – in most cases Jane only takes drastic measures in self-defense or to protect those she loves. There’s also a good amount of intrigue, mystery, hijinks, and romance, and of course, to lighten things up, the whole thing is shot through with frankness and humor. I think the story works particularly well because it follows the general structure of the original Jane, but puts even more focus on Jane Steele as an individual with power in her own hands doing her best to protect herself and her loved ones from many very real dangers.