Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Jane Steele

Orphan.  Heiress.  Murderess.

One of the defining moments in Jane Steele's life was the discovery of a novel by Charlotte Brontë detailing the life of a girl who resembled Miss Steele in many respects.  Jane Eyre grew up a shunned orphan in her aunt's home, went to a cruel boarding school, and fell in love with her employer.  But the Jane of Lindsey Faye's story follows a much different trajectory in life, and yet finds her own, unique brand of happiness after traveling her own personal hell, which has a lot more blood in it than her literary namesake's life ever did.


I've always considered Jane Eyre to be an early feminist book, as much as it could be for its time.  Jane rejects Thornfield and only becomes his wife after she is an independent woman with an income of her own.  She reverses their prospects; she is the provider and he the receiver of her care.  She doesn't need him to survive anymore, but she does need him because she loves him.  I'm sure many a thesis has been written on this point, so I need not belabor it further.  However, for all that Jane does and becomes, she is still constrained by her upbringing and her morality.

Jane Steele has no such compunctions.  She does what you, the reader, wanted to do to all of Jane Eyre's tormentors.  Jane likes knives.  And despite her guilt and conviction that she is damned, Jane is, deep down, a good person.  How can I say that about a murderess four times over?  Well, for one thing, Lyndsey Faye makes you believe in her.  The character of Jane is so well-structured and nuanced that it's impossible to hate her--you have to root for her.  She is an avenging angel, a vigilante.  And heaven knows society harbors a secret lust for vigilantes even as we fear them.  See: Batman, Superman, the Watchmen, basically any superhero ever.

On the grounds of Highgate House lies a small gardening cottage.  In this cottage live two people: a Frenchwoman and her daughter, Jane.  Anne-Laure and the mistress of the house, Mrs. Patience Barbary, who is also Jane's aunt, hate each other intensely, but maintain the veneer of civility demanded by society at this time.  While alone, Anne-Laure regularly tells Jane that she, and not Aunt's son Edwin, is the true heir to the house, and that her dead papa left it to her.  But Marie-Laure isn't exactly stable.  She falls into deep depressions and self-medicates with everyone's favorite Victorian drug of choice, laudanum.

Soon, Jane finds herself an orphan (moral of the story: laudanum bad.  See also: every Wilkie Collins novel ever), hated by her aunt and sexually assaulted by her revolting cousin.  In fighting Edwin off, she pushes him, he falls off a cliff, and Jane brands herself a murderess.   Packed off to a boarding school that is and is not reminiscent of Lowell in the original Jane Eyre, Jane finds herself in more trouble than ever.  The teachers are all incompetent, and the only kind one, Miss Lilyvale the music teacher,  is utterly tone-deaf but very pretty.  As it turns out, the headmaster, Mr. Munt, is harboring a secret much worse than simply being a hypocrite.

Miss Lilyvale confides to Jane that Mr. Munt has been sending her letters.  Lurid letters.  I'm talking grade A smut here.  Or grade F, whichever you prefer.  In any case, Miss Lilyvale, being poor and female, has no recourse against her tormentor.  For who would believe here?  Who would save her?  Who, in the 19th century, would take the word of a woman over that of a man?

After another deadly encounter, Jane and her best friend Clarke run off to London to make their fortunes.  Unfortunately, London is repulsively dirty and completely full of everyone else who've run off to make their fortunes.  They end up lodging with a writer of sensational broadsides, an occupation Jane soon takes up, as her taste for the macabre and sensational is unmatched.  But Jane cannot avoid trouble, and soon her past catches up to her and causes a rift between her and Clarke.  Serendipitously, she notices that her home--her inheritance--has been claimed by a cousin.  Determined to take back what is hers, Jane disguises herself as a governess and returns to Highgate to meet Mr. Thornfield and his ward.

Every bit of this novel shines--even through the grime and the manure and the filth of England at the time--but the parts with Thornfield were my very favorite.  After fighting in the Sikh Wars (tl;dr: England takes over the Sikh Empire because World Domination and Cultural Erasure were the names of the game), Henry Thornfield returned from India with his best friend, Sardar Singh, and a young girl named Sahjara.  The entire household staff is Sikh, and Jane, being much more open-minded than her peers, accepts them.  She is naturally curious, but never veers into making an exhibition out of her coworkers.  Mr. Singh becomes a dear friend, and Thornfield, well.  So much more.

Don't think that this section is just lovey-dovey stuff.  It's passionate, yes, but there are also murder attempts, near-accidents with horses in the road, scalp-tearing, stabbings, and blackmail.

I leave it to you to follow Jane's exploits to the mind-bending end of the novel, but rest assured that the original components of Jane Eyre: madness, bigamy, and maiming remain, only ingeniously swapped around to create an entirely fresh plot.

One passage of particular note that I have highlighted, bookmarked, and noted in my e-ARC deals with the attempted rape of Jane by Edwin.  This book is so feminist that it made me want to cheer, but one of the most feminist characters is one you'd least expect.  Sobbing, Jane explains "It was entirely my fault, you understand, that he ... that he .. because I didn't scream."  Her listener passionately exclaims,

"That a lady's succumbing to shock at exposure to such villainy could ever be considered a black mark against her--put the thought from your mind this very instant, do you hear?  ... She owes him no interaction whatsoever from the instant he discards his honour ... You owe your attacker no debt, Miss Steele."
I wanted to get up and cheer.

Toss into the mix Clarke and Jane's relationship and the existence of a prominent ace character, and you've got one whopper of a book.

It has taken me almost a month to write these thoughts.  They are imperfect, scattered, and do little justice to the work they attempt to describe.  I could have simply filled this review with every single line I have marked in my copy, but that would be more like a novel of its own.  Let me just say that the prose is a delight, and Jane's voice is simultaneously sarcastic, strong, and heartbreaking.

I leave it to you, Reader, to walk Jane's road with her and learn that redemption is found in the strangest of places and granted by the last ones we expect.  Now go out and buy this before I pull the knife out of my garter and have to threaten you with it.

I received a copy of this title from Edelweiss.

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