There is, and has been for some time, quite a trend in rewriting or reimagining classic stories. Think of Angela Carter twisting Little Red Riding Hood into The Company of Wolves or P.D. James adding a little murder into the married lives of Elizabeth and Darcy. Some of these books seem to be written because many of our favourite authors, like Jane Austen, just wrote so few novels we need more than they can provide. Others seem to come out of our need for certain characters, say Hercule Poirot, not to die when their original author does. And some are stronger stories than others. Lets just say I’ve seen stuff based on the life of Charlotte Bronte that made me wish I’d never learned to read…The ones that come out wrong are usually full of mistakes in language, sounding too modern or slangy for Jane Austen perhaps, or of basic historical research. Oddly, despite being the source material for some of my favourite pastiches (or maybe homages), Jane Eyre was not a book I took to wholeheartedly on first reading. I loved Jane’s early years, her growing passion for Mr Rochester and even her time with St John Rivers but I could not forgive her the phrase ‘Reader, I married him’. I spent many years feeling that she had surrendered her independence and only realised a few years ago that I had been wrong. If that had been true then she would have said ‘Reader, he married me’…Phew. My feminist icon could resume her place of honour!
Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele, is very clever. It is not a retelling or a sequel to Jane Eyre but the adventures of the eponymous heroine echo those of Charlotte Bronte’s character. In fact Jane Steele reads Jane Eyre and can see for herself where the similarities lie. I think this could be described as ‘sort of meta’. Like Jane Eyre (or JE as I shall refer to her to save my typing fingers) she has a childhood spent with little or no affection and which makes her both crave and disdain emotions. Also, like JE, she is sure that she is evil because of how she is described by most adults during her youth. And also because she has killed once or twice but, well, who’s counting.
The story continues through the obligatory awful school experience and, in a change from the Brontë story, some time in a rather splendidly sordid Victorian London. But, like the original, things really get going when our heroine becomes a governess and begins to fall in love with her employer. In the case of Jane Steele there are the added issues of Mr Thornfield’s Sikh household staff, of some missing jewels and of the truth about Jane’s parentage. And some more murder (but again, who’s counting…?).
If you enjoy stories which take the best of classic fiction and combine them with characters whose modern take on life makes them ahead of their time then you should enjoy this. A thrilling cross between Brontë passion and a Dickensian underclass which I really loved.