This glossier and better-dressed creative reimagining of Jane Eyre falls short of the original, sacrificing depth for the usual pop culture tropes of liberal feminism.
Jane SteelePublisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Length: 432 pages
Author: Lyndsay Faye
Publication date: 2016-03
Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele is a recreation of Jane Eyre and an homage, with a decidedly entertaining Gothic atmosphere and a main character whose feminism is in keeping with modern liberal sensibilities of a “kickass” female character. In Faye’s version, Jane also endures the numerous indignities and injustices that befell Jane Eyre -- and most Victorian women in general who lived without the support of a family wealth and connections -- but reacts to matters differently. This is the one key difference between Steele and Eyre: this Jane kills her oppressors.
The similarities, however, are many: both Janes are orphans left to the whims of resentful relatives, endure a horrible spell in a brutal school for girls, and find some meaning and purpose in their lives after finding a position as a governess in a mansion with a brooding, reticent hero with a heart. The mansion in question for Jane Steele is her family home, Highgate House. Jane’s French mother dies when Jane is still young, and part of Jane’s return journey to the house as a governess under a different name, Jane Stone, involves a desire on her part to see if she has any claim to the property. The ticket, for Jane and for any other young independent woman, is to hope that there is a secure income in store for them.
In keeping with the happy ending, of course, Jane finds both material means and marriage. She is, in a way, doubly blessed.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Faye transforms Jane into a murderer by necessity. Of her five victims, all are men, and all are men who use their power in a patriarchal society to decidedly evil ends. It begins at home, for Jane, when she is young, with her potential rapist cousin foiled by Jane’s quick thinking in ending his life. The murders continue with the tyrannical and sadistic headmaster of the school she attends.
The corpses pile up, but Jane takes no pleasure in being a murderess. This is what is meant to make Jane engaging to readers; it’s what allows us to have our cake and eat it, too: we can’t help but like Jane, who is so witty and clever and kind, and who murders the most loathsome men she is subjected to due to her position as woman. That she regrets all of it makes her easy to empathise with, and makes her a worthy heroine for the kind of straitlaced romance this book ends up being, despite being billed as a “satirical romance”.
Metatextual ironies abound in this novel, which Jane telling us from the start: “I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.” This is Jane writing her memoir, and it allows Faye to let Jane’s witticisms come to the fore as subtle digs at certain literary tropes of Victorian fiction:
There is no practice more vexing than that of authors describing coach travel for the edification of people who have already traveled in coaches. As I must adhere to form, however, I will simply list a series of phrases for the unlikely reader who has never gone anywhere: thin eggshell dawn soaking curtains stained with materials unknown to science; rattling fit to grind bones to powder; the ripe stench of horse and drive and bog.
Now I have fulfilled my literary duties, I need only add that other girls traveling to school may not have dwelt quite so avidly upon the angular faces of police constables as I.
But if the first half of the book with Jane’s experiences at school and her burgeoning friendship with the delightful Rebecca Clarke -- Jane Steele’s own Helen Burns, who blessedly comes to a happier end -- hint at the potential of a queer love story that refuses heteronormative values, the second half of the book puts us back in familiar territory. In this sense, Faye’s attempt to write back to Jane Eyre means centering British colonial history as a major plot point, and including nonwhite characters in the form of the Sikh household staff that the Mr. Rochester in question, Charles Thornfield, surrounds himself with.
The Anglo-Sikh wars in which the East India Company advances British colonialism and butchered its way through the Sikh Army is conveyed to Jane and the reader by long explications courtesy of Thornfield, an army doctor who survived the war. Jane, an outsider in English society, finds a family among Thornfield and his Sikh friends, Sardar Singh (who, back in Highgate House in England, acts as his butler).
Thornfield, too, is positioned as an outsider due to his having grown up in Punjab and being utterly immersed in Sikh culture. The parts of the book about Sikh culture and society reads a bit breathlessly like penny dreadful orientalism, as Thornfield waxes lyrical about the Sikh passion for lust and war and the characters of Sardar and Garima Kaur, Highgate House’s housekeeper (and former secretary to Singh who speaks several languages fluently), are rendered mysterious and, especially in the case of Garima, inscrutable. There's even a scene where there's a demonstration of the Sikh combat and martial fighting on the grounds of the house; while Sardar is noted by Jane as being technically superior, it’s Thornfield’s natural grace that renders him the more captivating subject. In this way, Jane Steele hews closely to benevolent white liberalism as it engages with foreign cultures; in true Hollywood style, the white man is always better than the native at performing his adopted culture.
Much in the same vein, the rest of the book follows a predictable pattern: although there are nonwhite characters and the brutalities of British colonialism are acknowledged, the true villain turns out to be a woman of colour, whose crimes are no different from Jane’s. Yet Jane, as the white feminist heroine we are meant to root for, is allowed to live, find love, and thrive, while the woman of colour is punished within the narrative. Without revealing too much, Jane wins the love of Thornfield and the esteem of Sardar, and literally takes the place of the brown woman by becoming an honorary Kaur. The East India’s company’s role in the British empire is also made more palatable, as the actions of the Director is in service of Jane’s sense of justice by the end of the book. They were imperialists in the brown country, of course, but they’re really nice to the pretty white woman back in England, and that should count for something.
In that sense, too, Jane Steele spices things up and sacrifices the depth and the oddness of Jane Eyre. What made Jane and Rochester’s relationship so disturbing yet poignant and affecting was Jane’s position outside of the realm of standard bourgeois white womanhood of the times. Rochester’s ability to see some internal value in her was the draw of the relationship, and the heart of the philosophical conundrum of Jane’s desire for marriage and passion within a libidinal economy that ensured plain women were made to understand that not being pretty objects of desire made them deviant and unnatural, and most of all, undesirable. Jane Steele however has inherited her French mother’s good looks and her French flair for dressing, as there never existed a French woman worth writing about that didn’t possess both.
Jane is “sex positive” and enjoys dressing up; she exists firmly within the male gaze and multiple men in this book, including Thornfield, assure her that she is lovely and pleasing to their collective gaze. This ticks all the boxes of modern liberal feminism; god forbid women demand rights for themselves, as well as love and passion, if they aren’t beautiful and don’t enjoy dressing up! It’s unheard of in 2016 that a plain woman who dresses for comfort instead of style might also want to enjoy a passionate sexual relationship with a man she desires.
Jane Steele is predictably familiar, in that regard; if she lived in 2016 she would never be seen without makeup and will wear the required trendy clothing in order to rightfully earn her place as a feminist whose image is always Instagram-ready. Kicking ass in great threads and killing men while being pretty; Jane Steele is perfectly ready to be celebrated in multiple pop culture think pieces as a great feminist role model for young girls. The Jane of Jane Eyre who demanded, in her own way, to be seen, recognised, and heard while existing outside the libidinal economy of patriarchal heterosexual relations is nowhere to be found here.
Both in this aspect of feminine presentation and the undercurrent of benevolent orientalism running throughout the book, Jane Steele reveals itself to have a more conservative heart at its core than Charlotte Brontë’s brave, odd, and original book. It’s a fun, entertaining read. Beyond the spiced-up Gothic atmosphere, however, and the gloss of the easily-digestible liberal feminism of present-day pop culture, there's an absence of the rage and sadness of Jane Eyre’s flawed and complex feminism.