Lyndsay Faye’s fifth novel, Jane Steele, opens with the chilling line: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.” From page one, readers will be gripped by Faye’s reinterpretation of Jane Eyre as a gutsy, heroic serial killer named Jane Steele.
A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement. Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.
Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?
In this interview, Lyndsay Faye reveals her inspiration behind the book, the feminist themes within and how she writes from the point of view of a man (turns out, they’re just people too!) Pick up this riveting read just in time to celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday on April 21.
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RIF: What inspired the idea for this novel, and gave you the confidence you could pull it off? After all, Jane Eyre as a serial killer is a pretty outrageous concept, and it re-imagines one of the most beloved and famous novels of all time.
Lyndsay Faye: Um, unwarranted hubris? I’m kidding. It’s absolutely outrageous, and I think that the outrageousness of the concept was freeing. I’m very open about the fact that it’s a ridiculous notion to conceive of Jane Eyre as Dexter. So I was enabled by that rather than hampered, if that makes sense? She wants to get rid of truly evil people, and there’s something satisfying about the notion of a female protagonist accomplishing what Darkly Dreaming Dexter did. I don’t ever condone murder, of course. But I will point out that Charlotte Brontë actually lived at that horrible school she describes in Jane Eyre, and two of her sisters later died after having been terribly weakened by lack of care at the Cowan Bridge facility. What ought to be outrageous is that any such thing was ever allowed to happen in the first place—children were fairly routinely abused in the 19th century at such boarding schools, like the one equally vividly brought to life in Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens. My absurdities are usually responses to real social injustices.
Additionally, this novel is unabashedly also a satire. I call it a satirical romance, and I don’t even know if that’s a real thing, though I hope so! Honestly, I wasn’t worried about people who love Jane Eyre being offended because I already love Jane Eyre so much it oozes out of my pores. The entire undertaking came from a place of deep affection and respect for the original material. It’s very tongue in cheek.
RIF: Although this is your fifth novel, Jane Steele is your first female narrator of novel length. Why now, and why not before?
LF: There wasn’t precisely a specific reason. Dust and Shadow was a traditional Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so John Watson was the only narrator possible. Then when I wrote the Timothy Wilde trilogy, I wanted it to be from the perspective of the very first NYC police officer, right in the thick of things, and unfortunately that entirely precluded the notion of a female narrator because women weren’t cops in antebellum cities. That became a trilogy filled with a great many powerful women, and I actually got the opportunity to explore a lot of things about gender relations from a male’s perspective that might have been told very differently from a female’s. Timothy makes many mistaken assumptions about the women in his life, and everyone learns from each other throughout the course of the three novels. I don’t think those novels are any less full of girl power than this one simply because they’re told by men. You can write with emotional honestly and clarity about the culture of the time period no matter whose head you’re in.
Frankly, it’s very easy for me to be in a male head space. People seem surprised I write men well, but it’s never been remotely an issue or even a challenge. Gender, in my own personal experience, is a much less binary concept than unimaginative people would like to suppose. Growing up, I read everything from L. M. Montgomery to Ernest Hemingway. My parents understood that my dolls were going to end up in the back of my closet on the floor, to make room for my magic rock and magic stick collections, so they stopped buying them, and I’ll always be grateful that they treated me like me as I was growing up, as opposed to someone else. Attempts to dress me in pink were met with virulent opposition from the time I could express color preferences! What’s sad is that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with pink, and I know that now, and sport the whole rainbow, but when I was little, I associated it with doing things like playing House or playing Wedding, instead of playing Star Wars with my brother. Biology and culture and sexuality and self intersect in myriad ways.
George R. R. Martin was asked once why he wrote such badass women, and I’m massively paraphrasing here, but he essentially said that it was easy because he’d always thought of women as people. So writing men is fairly effortless for me, and I like his explanation. Men are people, so I can write men. I used to worry about male characters showing too much emotion, for instance, and then I reread a good amount of Shakespeare, which I adore, and these guys are just plastering their hearts all over their sleeves. Hamlet can barely shut up about his feelings for an entire play. That’s not an infrequently performed work of theatre! Men go through a lot of toxic gender issues as they grow up as well, and I love my male narrators. There’s plenty of me in them. For instance, I’ve passionately wanted to be John Watson solving crimes with Sherlock Holmes since I was about ten, so that was a neat fit!
RIF: You are obviously a fan of Jane Eyre, and so is your character Jane Steele, who is reading the novel throughout your narrative. What is her reaction to it? Does she see herself as being like or unlike Jane Eyre?
LF: She sees a great deal of herself in Jane Eyre, but whereas Jane Eyre resisted the lie that she was wicked and irredeemable, Jane Steele is guilty of enough crimes that she believes it wholeheartedly. A large question of the book is—is Jane Steele right to consider herself evil? If you kill for self-defense, is that unforgiveable? What about killing for love? What about killing to protect a helpless child from a predator? When is doing the wrong thing actually the right thing? When Jane Steele first encounters Jane Eyre, she’s shocked by a great many parallels about their lives, but also fascinated by the number of choices she’s made that the other Jane would have found impossible.
RIF: Aside from Jane Eyre, which other English classics have influenced your novel? What is it that fascinates you about them?
LF: I grew up on them. I devoured them like crack-laced candy. Jane Steele is of course inspired by Jane Eyre, but it’s also greatly influenced by Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby, which is essentially Jane Eyre but with more jokes. I’m apparently incapable of writing novels that lack dirty jokes! And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four makes a strong appearance. Wilkie Collins’s fingerprints are everywhere. There’s one more English author who helped inspire a major plot point, but I can’t mention her without completely spoiling the ending, so I’ll let people read about her in the Afterword, where she’s thanked as well.
What fascinates me about them is multifaceted. They appeal to me stylistically because I adore language and can get ornate about that. If I were writing modern-day stories, I couldn’t use all this old school vocabulary I love so much. They also appeal because they’re like time travel in a sense, heading off on a lark to another era and place entirely. But most of all, we keep using the same bad rhetoric over and over again to marginalize people—women, people of color, religious minorities. If I bought a soapbox and stood on it shouting that the way some folks treat Muslim Americans now is identical to the virulently anti-Catholic arguments that were being used in the 1840s, no one would care. But I can write a novel called The Gods of Gotham about it and invest these characters with real feelings and hopes and dreams, and then people are interested and can draw their own conclusions.
RIF: The Sikh culture and religion are important aspects of this novel. Why did you choose to make them so central? How did you research them?
LF: The Edward Fairfax Rochester character, Charles Thornfield, was always going to be an army doctor with serious PTSD issues. That was a concept I had from the start. Then I had to choose which war, and boy, there were plenty to pick from! But the minute I started researching Sikh culture, I was hooked. Completely drawn in. A group of people reviled for rejecting the caste system’s cruelties turned into an empire of holy warriors. And the way their empire was lost to the East India Company is a riveting story. Charles is English and a Sikh convert, and he was pulled into that conflict in deeply damaging ways.
I was able to research the Sikhs from two angles—from the British historians who were commissioned to write about them historically, and from the perspective of Sikh scholars. Reading a good amount of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, also was highly important. I can’t claim to have read it all—it’s almost 1500 pages long. But I was guided through a good portion by Sikh authors who highlighted essential teachings.
The most important reason I chose to write so many Sikh characters is that I refuse to write a book just about white people. Representation is important. Yes, authors have the right to sit down and pen whatever sorts of characters they like, but I’d personally feel irresponsible entirely populating a book with white people. Dust and Shadow came closest despite having one interesting Chinese character, but that was much more difficult because I was using all the real forensic data from the Yard’s investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders, so my hands were a bit more tied there.
The most central Sikh character, Mr. Sardar Singh, is also asexual. There are a lot of sorts on this planet—as many of them as possible should end up in my novels! I adore that character. He’s one of the more interesting people I’ve written, I think.
RIF: You describe this as an overtly feminist novel. How so? And in calling it feminist, you clearly break ranks with women who refuse to embrace the term.
LF: I think that most people in this country believe women should be paid as much respect to (and paid as much money to boot) as men. When that’s called feminism, sometimes people start misinterpreting the word. Feminism means equality, it’s as simple as that. Women who refuse to embrace the term have every right to do so, because obviously their autonomy is just as important as mine, but I am a feminist because I think both genders should be on an equal playing field. A hundred years ago, I wasn’t allowed to vote. That’s not a very long time. Women who don’t want to identify as feminists must have their reasons, but they’re nevertheless allowed to get divorced, inherit property, not be beaten by their spouses (which used to be perfectly legal), and work as doctors and lawyers and military heroines and astronauts and scientists thanks to feminists. So that’s pretty counterintuitive to my way of thinking. If you want to say “I’m not a feminist,” fine, but still be grateful that in America you’re allowed to drive a car, and that’s not the case worldwide.
And let’s be clear: I’m friends with a lot of strongly vocal male feminists as well, because they’re not under the misapprehension feminism means taking something away from them. It’s giving something back to women that was taken away, namely the right to make our own decisions, control our own lives, and live without the fear that we will be punished somehow. It’s simply a fact that one in five women experience sexual assault in college. That number is not the same for men. Feminism is still extremely important.
I married a feminist. My dad and brother are feminists. That’s because they’re also gentlemen, and it’s not gentlemanly to treat half the human race as being somehow lesser.
RIF: Why do you think that there’s an anti-feminist backlash in America right now? How is it evident? And is Jane Steele in some sense a response to it?
LF: It’s everywhere. College rape culture, the systematized attack against our ability to gain safe reproductive health care, the fact that one of the leading candidates for president at the moment likes to make boorish personal remarks about women’s looks and plenty of folks don’t appear to have any issue with that.
Jane Steele is in some ways a mystery/thriller, in some ways a romance, and in some rather a silly book about a seemingly defenseless woman going on a killing spree. I won’t deny it was incredibly satisfying to write it in the current atmosphere. But this isn’t an anti-male book either. Absolutely not. The three main male characters I’m thinking of are absolutely stellar examples of humanity, and get some of the most pro-female dialogue in the entire manuscript. It’s the real dregs who get their comeuppance.
RIF: We’re nearing the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. What kind of woman was she, beyond being a brilliant writer? Do you think you would have been friends? Incidentally, your physical description of Jane Steele sounds quite a lot like Brontë.
LF: That was purposeful, thank you! Brontë went through an incredible amount of tragedy in her life, losing far too many family members. When she was feted about as a popular novelist, she was also reportedly quite shy and retiring in person. She was extremely intelligent, obviously, so as long as we weren’t in a setting that made her uncomfortable, I’d love to have the chance to chat with her. This is a woman who invented an entire imaginary country with her sister and then co-wrote epic and intricate sagas about its residents as a child. She must have been absolutely marvelous. I was obsessed with J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building when I was a kid—I’d recommend The Lord of the Rings to her.
I’ve visited her family home, which now serves as the Brontë Museum, with a friend of mine who was the former curator. That was an unforgettable experience—looking at her tiny writing desk, seeing her room. She might have found me a bit boisterous, for which I’d entirely forgive her. But I’d have thought she was altogether swell.