Lyndsay Faye

Jane Steele

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Jane Steele Summary

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Published in 2016, Jane Steele is a funny and violent retelling of and homage to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre. Author Lyndsay Faye follows many of the larger plot points of the Victorian work she takes as her inspiration, even setting her novel in the same time period as Bronte, but in Jane Steele, she creates a character who solves her problems through murder rather than through the introspective acquiescence that marks Jane Eyre’s growing up.

Each of Jane Steele’s chapters opens with an excerpt from Jane Eyre; one Faye’s conceits is that her protagonist Jane Steele is a huge fan – in fact, Jane Steele has started writing down her story in imitation of Jane Eyre. She explains her diarist impulses: “I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.”

Jane Steele is born to a widowed French dancer, the beautiful and mentally ill Anne-Laure Steele. Jane lives with her mother in a cottage on a family estate called Highgate House. The main house is occupied by Jane’s widowed aunt, Patience Barbary and her horrible thirteen-year-old son, Edwin – a fact that confuses Jane, who is told by her mother that the estate actually belongs to her.

One day when Jane is nine years old, Anne-Laure kills herself, so the young girl ends up in the care of her aunt, who immediately resolves to send her away to Lowan Bridge School, a miserable boarding school run by the tyrannical Velasius Munt.

Before Jane goes away, her cousin Edwin, whose creepy fascination with little Jane has already prompted him to expose himself to her, tries to sexually assault her. Jane successfully fights him off, and after he has stopped his attack, she angrily pushes him so hard that he falls into a ravine and dies. A not particularly horrified Jane counts this as the beginning of her career as a “murderess.” As with most of Jane’s later killings, what she does is not premeditated murder, but always self-defense that goes the extra mile.

Lowan Bridge is a horrific institution where girls are encouraged to rat one another out for food, which tends to be withheld as punishment. Any potential camaraderie is destroyed in Reckoning sessions where girls are expected to confess sins or report on others. Jane’s bedmate tells on her for crying in her sleep, thus breaking one of many insane Lowan rules by mourning her “tainted mother.” While at Lowan, Jane forms a close attachment to Clarke, a younger and much more saintly girl whose inability to lie frequently results in punishment. When Jane and Clarke find evidence that Munt, the headmaster, has designs on the school’s music teacher, Munt threatens the girls: Clarke will starve to death as punishment, and Jane will be sent to an insane asylum. Panicked, Jane stabs him to death with a letter opener and both girls flee to London.

However, London is no picnic for unprotected teen girls in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jane scrambles to find them shelter and income, eventually talking her way into the house of Hugh and Bertha Grizzlehurst. Hugh publishes penny dreadfuls – short, lurid, gossipy descriptions of recently committed crimes. He hires Jane as a writer of “last confessions,” which are first-person descriptions of crimes ostensibly written by the just hanged. Nevertheless, things aren’t ok. Hugh beats his wife, at one point so severely that she has a miscarriage, telling Jane that if his wife ever tried to leave him, he would simply beat her up more. When he is on the verge of hitting Bertha again, Jane kills him.

Jane spends a few more years in London, trying to get by on her own, and in contact with the lowest levels of society. She poisons and kills a judge who is planning to buy the very young daughter of Jane’s friend, a prostitute who has no way to protect herself or her child.

When Jane is twenty-four years old, she sees a newspaper advertisement for a governess at Highgate House, which is now owned by Charles Thornfield. Hoping to determine whether she is actually the estate’s rightful heir, Jane takes the governess position.

Charles grew up in the Punjab region of India where he worked as a surgeon during the Anglo-Sikh wars when the country’s residents rose up to fight off the East India Company’s oppressive control. Now that he is at Highgate House, Charles has brought with him his half-Indian half-English ward, Sahjara, his butler and friend, Mr. Sardar Singh, and has staffed the estate with other Sikhs.

Jane falls immediately in love with the precocious and sweet Sahjara, who is to be her student. Sardar becomes her friend and trusted ally. She also finds Charles attractive and mysteriously alluring, though she is frustrated by his refusal to touch her. Charles clearly is still nursing psychic wounds from the war, wearing gloves at all times as a penance for something.

Highgate is full of mysteries: something untoward is happening in the basement, which Jane is supposed to stay away from; there is a bitter housekeeper who has been nursing grudges for her entire life; Charles and Sardar have unfinished business from the war and powerful enemies in the East India Company; and a trunk of precious jewels that belong to Sahjara have recently been stolen. Some readers point out that these subplots seem to be tangential to Jane’s story. In danger from a variety of these issues, Jane returns to London to protect herself. There, she reunites with Clarke, who confesses to having romantic feelings for Jane. Jane is shocked; the revelation prompts her to realize just how deeply in love with Charles she actually is. Jane also finds out the truth about her connection to Highgate House. It turns out that Patience wasn’t her aunt, but was Jane’s father’s wife. Anne-Laure was the man’s mistress, whom he installed in a cottage on his property. No wonder Patience hated them both.

Jane returns to Highgate to protect its residents and to foil the plot of yet another villain. Then, she confesses to Charles that she has killed at least five people. The novel ends with him telling her that her past doesn’t really matter, and the implication that they will live happily ever after.