I somehow made it through all of my years of high school and college (with a minor in English, no less) without ever being assigned a single Bronte novel. Much to my chagrin, for when I finally picked up Jane Eyre at the age of 27, I found an enjoyable, relatable, and seemingly timeless tale of what it means to make a place for oneself in the world. It seems I picked up the classic just in time, too, as a working knowledge of Jane Eyre left me ready to devour a delightful onslaught of contemporary novels inspired by Bronte’s story.
Re Jane moves the classic tale to the turn of the 20th century: Jane Re, orphaned daughter of an American man and Korean woman, is sent from Korea to live with her aunt and uncle in Flushing, Queens. Feeling unloved and unwanted in her family’s neighborhood, she flees at the first opportunity, accepting a position in Brooklyn as the au pair for the Mazer-Farley family. There, Jane is subjected to Beth Mazer’s feminist-leaning lectures (cleverly delivered from her attic office) and the romantic attentions of Ed Farley.
Much of Re Jane stays within the bounds of Charlotte Bronte’s original tale as the novel progresses, with knowing nods to the woes of Jane Eyre and many asides directed to the Reader. But it is as Patricia Park moves her debut novel into its own territory, diverting from the plot of the classic tale, Re Jane becomes as much an homage to the timelessness of Jane Eyre as it is an independent exploration of what it means to make a life for yourself and find a place in the world—especially as an immigrant.
Where Re Jane reads very much like a modern retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele presents itself as a historical tale inspired by the classic. In the early pages of the novel, it becomes clear that the way the fictional Jane Steele tells her own story has been influenced by Jane Eyre, though Steele is not meant to read as a replacement of the classic character: “I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts.” As she acknowledges, much of Steele’s story mirrors Eyre’s (just as her style mirror’s Bronte’s): she is orphaned at a young age, left to stay with her unwelcoming aunt and cousin, and sent off to a strict boarding school. Then she runs away and makes a new life for herself, first in London and then as—you guessed it—the governess in a country estate (where she may or may not fall for her employer).
As with Re Jane, where Jane Steele is most clever is in its divergence from the classic story. Most notably: “Reader, I murdered him.” For Jane Steele is no weak and wounded character subjected to the whims of those around her—but a vicious killer who slays those who cross her. Or perhaps she’s not quite so vicious, after all. With Jane Steele, as with her Timothy Wilde trilogy before it, Faye has proven herself a master of nuanced historical fiction, writing novels packed with multifaceted characters who are not always what they appear to be at first glance.
Up next, I’m eying Reader, I Married Him, a new collection of short stories inspired by that most famous line of the Bronte novel. The collection, edited by Tracy Chevalier, boasts stories from Audrey Niffenegger, Evie Wyld, Lionel Shriver, Roxane Gay, Jane Gardam, Tessa Hadley, and a host of other contemporary women writers—yet another testament to the enduring appeal of Jane Eyre from its publication in 1847 on through today.
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