Yes, dear reader, all the stars. 5 stars.
The blurb: Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.
A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?
Back when I was at uni, my fellow English students tended to fall into three camps: those who preferred poetry, those who preferred plays, and those who only got excited once Defoe had the good grace to write the first thing widely recognised as a novel in English. I fell, and still fall, into the last of those camps. And, if I then had to pick my favourite period for the novel, it would be the Victorian era.
Jane Eyre (1847) is one of my favourite books, but several times I’ve wished Jane could show just a little more spine and a little more sense. Jane Steele fulfils those wishes and then some in an involving tale which is part romance, part mystery and part thriller.
The execution of this story is pretty-much perfect. Rather than come at her retelling with a straight face, the author has her Jane Steele consciously compare her story to that of Jane Eyre, the heroine of her favourite book. All this meta-business is conducted with a wry smile and a knowing sense of its own ridiculousness which is thoroughly charming. Furthermore, in addition to all this disarming whimsy, the author clearly has a sincere love for the Victorian novel and manages to recreate its style and tropes while subtly subverting them.
You don’t have to have read Jane Eyre to enjoy this book. It stands on its own as a cracking tale of intrigue, murder and romance. The heroine’s first-person voice grabbed me from page 1 and I didn’t want to put the book down. In fact, I was rather disgruntled every time something else demanded my attention. However, if you do remember the ins and outs of Charlotte Bronte’s tale, there are many lovely details and parallels to raise an additional smile. My personal favourite? In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester’s ghastly secret is up in the attic of Thornfield Hall. This has lead to shed loads of psychoanalytical literary analysis which equates the attic space to the psyche or “head space” of the characters. How fitting then that in Jane Steele, a much earthier retelling of Jane Eyre, the grisly secrets of the big house are hidden in its cellars? Ha! The Freudians would have a field day!
Overall: a highly-entertaining adventure with with lots of action and romance narrated by a fantastic anti-heroine. What else could you want?
Claire Huston / Art and Soul