Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is a satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies, inspired by the classic Jane Eyre. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.
In Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye reimagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer, and it’s a laugh-out-loud funny rendering of one of literature’s most beloved figures.
Written in the first person, Steele begins her memoir by saying, “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.” Before the end of the third page, she says, “Reader, I murdered him.” I laughed and thought of the lyrics to Kander and Ebb’s “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago.
He had it coming
He had it coming
He only had himself to blame
If you'd have been there
If you'd have seen it
I betcha you would have done the same!
And I betcha we would have, or certainly would have wanted to. Undoubtedly, readers of Jane Eyre would have reveled in the grisly demise of John Reed, Jane’s earliest torturer, who does not get so nearly a wonderful comeuppance as Jane Steele’s lecherous cousin Edwin Barbary. It is no spoiler when I tell you that Jane does not suffer nasty, vicious men. She is, after all, a serial killer.
Though not accused of the murder, Jane is nonetheless sent away to the Lowan Bridge School. It is at school, Jane reveals, that the “event which caused me fully to embrace my true nature took place some six months later.”
Similar to the Lowood school of Jane Eyre, Lowan Bridge is a miserable place. The rooms are cold, the uniforms coarse and ugly, and the food, for the most part, inedible. That is, when one is allowed food.
The head of the school, the wonderfully named Vesalius Munt, holds a reckoning each evening, and the girls are encouraged to rat on each other as a means of themselves getting a better meal. Jane tells us it “would have been possible for me to survive Lowan Bridge for longer than the bleak seven years I spent there had Mr. Munt not taken it into his head to kill Clarke.” When Jane demands to know how this is allowed, she is told, “If any refuse, it’s two hours with him in his private office. God knows what happens inside—Fisher went, and would never speak of it afterwards.”
Rebeca Clarke, Jane’s closest friend, is slowly dying from starvation, and when Jane confronts the monstrous Munt, he offers to be merciful to Clarke if Jane agrees to go to an asylum. Jane is nearly struck dumb with dread and rage.
“He was inclined to be merciful and thus was offering me a choice of my life or Rebecca Clarke’s. The seconds elongated, an out of tune music box winding ever more slowly to its finish; Mr. Munt, smiling picked up his pen…. I was not inclined to be merciful, however, and thus gripped the letter opener and plunged the sharp point deep into my headmaster’s neck.”
He had it coming.
Of the murder, Jane says:
“Few among us are aware of how much blood the human body contains—surging in thick waves should it chance to be spilt.
I had spilled it, meanwhile, and therefore drastic measures were required.
Mr. Vesalius Munt was felled by a strangely skillful blow—as if I had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided that he should stop being alive. He gurgled a disbelieving shriek, eyes ablaze with wrath and fear, looking perversely more alive than ever, each muscle taut with severest alarm. He even got halfway to his feet, reaching for me, rich gore soaking the fateful ledger.
Then his lips bubbled crimson, his blazing eyes hardened, and he slumped forward over the desk. His fingers, so graceful in life, twitched like the poisonous insect he was; his back ceased to shudder.
I cocked my head and gauged his condition: dead.”
He had it coming.
Jane and Becky Clarke take it on the lam and end up in London trying to keep themselves housed and fed. Jane decides finally to advertise for a position as governess and leaves London and Becky behind, but not before killing her landlord and a pedophile judge. Trust me.
They had it coming.
And thus begins Jane’s life at Highgate House working for Mr. Charles Thornfield, who has brought his ward, Sahjar Kaur, to be tutored. Thornfield appears to have relished his service in the Punjab, as all who serve in the household, including Sahjar, are Sikhs. And the Gordian Knot of a mystery that awaits Jane at Highgate involves the Punjab, the Sikhs, the East India Company, and some very dark deeds.
Highgate House is a mystery reader’s delight. There are men with dark pasts and sinister visitors who are trying to kill Thornfield, and the East India Company tries to steal a fortune in jewels belonging to Sahjar. And what is going on in the basement of that house? Dark doings surround Jane, but she cannot fail to be enchanted with the house, Sahjar, and of course, the dark and very mysterious Charles Thornfield, who like Edward Fairfax Rochester is plagued by his past and a trauma he seems unable to overcome.
Jane comes to learn many things at Highgate House, but perhaps the most important is that even serial killers deserve love.
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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.