G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 432 pages, $27
I have to start this review with an apology. “Jane Steele” takes place in mid-1800s England. It approximates the tone and dialogue of the times. Although I enjoy, and even quite admire, some books written during this time period (including “Jane Eyre,” upon which Lyndsay Faye dotes), I don’t often like this sort of facsimile book. Because of this prejudice, “Jane Steele” began with an uphill battle, but I was hopeful that this would be one of the exceptions. Yes and no.
I quite enjoyed the plot, the action scenes at the end, and the comeuppance visited upon the dastardly villains within. (Oh, stop reading me right now!) On the other hand, I did find the facsimile language treacly and precious at times. But if you enjoy period romances, this should be a very good read for you.
Drawing on Brontë and Dickens, Faye has created a series of disasters for Jane Steele to overcome. Initially, there is only a pall hanging over the question of Jane’s patrimony. Her father is long dead, her mother is odd and drug-addled. They are living on an estate belonging to her father’s family, or so she is told. Her aunt lives in the mansion, Jane and her mother live in a cottage on the estate. The aunt’s son, an odious boy slightly older than Jane, stalks her. He is Jane’s first victim.
Yes, Jane is a murderess. There are more victims after Jane is thrust into a horrid boarding school and then out into the horrid, unpitying streets of London. She has no money and no patrons, but she does have ingenuity and a strong will to survive.
A portion of the book is given to how Jane survives child- and early adulthood, and it is the better part, in my opinion. How like Dickens’ clever waifs and naifs she is. The rest of the book describes an adult Jane’s return to Highgate House, the estate of her youth. The current residents are Charles Thornfield, a Heathcliff-like lord of the manor; Suhjara, his half-Punjabi ward; Sadar Singh, his Sikh butler; and assorted people brought from India. Jane has returned disguised as a governess for young Suhjara.
“Jane Steele” is mannered and highly romantic. It comes with heaving bosoms and dark eyes. It has exotic touches and very Dickensian circumstances. “Jane Steele” has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.