Jane Steele: A Confession

Jane Steele

This book retells Jane Eyre in the voice of a serial killer. No, the novel is not some bizarre mocking of a great classic, but a humorous, well-executed pastiche --literary even—of Charlotte Bronte’s favorite book.

Jane’s first killing is accidental. When Jane was only nine, her annoying first cousin, Edwin, who was thirteen, kissed Jane and then tried to force himself upon her when they were playing outside. She shoved him away, perhaps with more strength than she’d intended.  His head slammed on a rock and he died. 

It happened during an awful period for Jane. Her French mother had just died from a self-inflicted draught of laudanum, and her Aunt Patience, her cousin’s mother, had decided to send her off to boarding school.

But according to Jane’s mother, whom Jane shared a lowly cottage with, the whole vast estate belonged to Jane and she would inherit it when she came of age.

After Edwin’s early demise, Sam Quillfeather, the local constable grilled Jane about what had happened.  Even though her Aunt Patience, who hated Jane, bought Jane’s story of what happened, Quillfeather seemed oddly suspicious.

Within days, Jane boarded a bus for the school.  In her dorm room, Jane met the emaciated Clarke (at the school, all the girls were known by their last names).  Clarke had just been denied dinner. At her first meal with the other students, Steele found out why. To Jane’s immense surprise the food was plentiful and smelled delicious--deep bowls of mutton stew steaming. But alas, the headmaster, Vesalius Monk, began the meal first with a prayer and then an inquiry about how the girls had behaved that day. Soon, girl after girl tattled on another, and Monk refused food to the accused and banned them from the hall.

Thus began Jane’s several years stay in an institution run on hypocrisy, fake religiosity, and fear. But during this time, Jane’s friendship with Clarke deepened. However, one day, Jane discovered evidence that the evil Monk had been sending passionate letters to a female teacher.

Then, one Sunday, during services, Monk found Jane in his office. He knew immediately that she had come to search for evidence that would hurt him with his superiors.  Because Clarke was involved, and Monk had threatened to punish Clarke again, Jane felt her only way to save her friend from starving was to slit the evil headmaster’s throat.  After the grisly deed was done, Clarke came upon Jane running away. She joined her.

Soon they arrived in the big city, London, where the girls scraped by. Clarke did chores for a poor landlady, and Jane, ironically, added texture and real details to crime stories for a seedy journalist who was married to the landlady. Jane had an amazing knack for writing blood and gore, based on experience, a fact she kept to herself.  

Her journalist friend was cheerful and kind, except while drinking. When he beat up his sweet wife and caused her to suffer a second miscarriage, Jane took justice into her own hands.

But alas, this changed everything so Jane decided to become a governess--not just any governess but one at her old estate--now taken over by Mr. Charles Thornfield, recently back from the Indian (Asia) wars.

The section at Thornfield (or is it really Jane’s estate?), warmly shows two eccentric people falling in love. There is no madwoman in the attic, but Charles, like Jane, has a complicated, and law-breaking past. Also, the locked door leads not to the attic but a mortuary in the basement.  It is filled with corpses from Quillfeather’s unsolved cases.

This clever story offers many more intriguing details, for instance, the Thornfield staff all hails from India, and the butler, Sahmar Singh, is not really a butler at all but—well, you can discover these and other intriguing details for yourself.

If you’re a historical mystery buff, or a Jane Eyre devotee, this novel will surprise and engage you.

For an excellent prequel to Jane Eyre try the excellent Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Crime    Fiction