Home > Jane Steele

Jane Steele
Lyndsay Faye

Volume One


“I wouldn’t have her heart for anything. Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don’t repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney, and fetch you away.”

Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.

Already this project proves more difficult than I had ever imagined. Autobiographies depend upon truth; but I have been lying for such a very long, lonesome time.

“Jane, will you be my friend again?” Edwin Barbary had asked.

My cousin’s lips were gnawed red, his skin gleaming with exertion and desire. When his fleshy mouth next moved, the merest croak emerged. He breathed precisely five more times, the fat folds of his belly shuddering against his torn waistcoat, and then he stilled like a depleted clockwork toy.

More of my homicides anon—the astute among you will desire to know why a dyed-in-the-wool villainess takes up pen and foolscap in the first place. I have been reading over and over again the most riveting book titled Jane Eyre, and the work inspires me to imitative acts. My new printing features a daring introduction by the author railing against the first edition’s critics. I relate to this story almost as I would a friend or a lover—at times I want to breathe its entire alphabet into my lungs, and at others I should prefer to throw it across the room. Whoever heard of disembodied voices calling to governesses, of all people, as this Jane’s do?

Hereby do I avow that I, Jane Steele, in all my days working as a governess, never once heard ethereal cries carried to me upon the brawny shoulders of the north wind; and had I done, I should have kept silent for fear of being labelled eccentric.

Faulting the work for its wild fancies seems petty, however, for there are marvellous moments within. I might myself once have written:

Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win any one’s favour?

I left such reflections behind me in childhood, at the bottom of the small ravine where my first cousin drew his final gurgling breaths. Yet I find myself pitying the strange, kindly Jane in the novel whose biography is so weirdly similar; she, too, was as welcome in her aunt’s household as are church mice in the Communion larder, and was sent to a hell in the guise of a girls’ school. That Jane was unfairly accused of wickedness, however, while I can no better answer my detractors than to thank them for their pains over stating the obvious.

It was the boarding school that taught me to act as a wolf in girl’s clothing should: skulking, a greyer shadow within a grey landscape. It was London which formed me into a pale, wide-eyed creature with an errant laugh, a lust for life and for dirty vocabulary, and a knife in her pocket. It was Charles who changed everything, when I fell in love with him under the burdens of a false identity and a blighted conscience. The beginning of a memoir could be made in any of those places, but without my dear cousin, Edwin Barbary, none of the rest would have happened at all, so I hereby commence my account with the unembellished truth:

Reader, I murdered him.

• • •

I may always have been wicked, but I was not always universally loathed. For instance, I remember my mother asking me at five years old, “Are you hurt, chérie?”

Then as now, I owned a pallid complexion and listlessly curling hair the colour of hazelnut shells. Having just fallen flat on my face in the garden behind our cottage on the outskirts of Highgate House, I considered whether or not to cry. The strawberries I had gathered were crushed under my apron, painting me with sweet gore. I pored over the best stratagems to gain my mother’s undivided attention perennially in those days—back when I believed I might be merely naughty, fit to be punished in the here and not the hereafter.

As it happened, my mother had been well all day. We had navigated no weeping, no laudanum, no gnawing at already-bleeding fingernails; she was teasing and coaxing, snatching my hand up as she wondered whether we might cover some biscuits with berries and fresh honey and host an impromptu picnic.

Therefore, I saw no need to cry. Instead, I stuck out my tongue at the offending root and gulped down the swelling at the back of my throat.

“I’m fine,” I told her, “though my wrist is sore.”

Smiling from where she sat on a quilted blanket beneath our cascading willow, she called, “Come here then, and let me see.”

My mother was French. She spoke to me often in that language, and I found this flattering; she directed her native tongue at no one else unless she desired to illustrate their ignorance. She seemed to me unpredictable and glimmering as a butterfly, one worthy of being collected and displayed under glass. I was proud of her; I belonged to her. She noticed me when no one else bothered, and I could make her laugh when she could bear no one else.

Ma mère studied my wrist, brushed the specks of juice and flesh from my pinafore, and directed a dry look in my eyes.

“It is not very serious,” she declared lightly in French. “Not even to a spun-sugar little girl.”

“It hurts,” I insisted, thinking, It may have been better to cry after all.

“Then it is most profoundly serious to me,” she proclaimed, again in French, and proceeded to kiss me until I was helpless with giggling.

“And I lost all the berries.”

“But consider—there is no harm done. We shall go and gather more. After all, have you anything of consequence to do?”

The answer was no; there was nothing of consequence to do, as this garden party took place at midnight under a wan, watchful moon. Having spent my entire life in my mother’s company, I thought nothing amiss herein, though I was vexed I had not seen the root which had tripped me. Surely other little girls donned lace-trimmed frocks and enjoyed picnics featuring trifle and tea cakes, sitting with their mothers under the jewel-strewn canopy of starlight, never dreaming of sleep until the cold dew threatened and we began to shiver.

Do they not? I would anxiously ask myself.

It is relevant that my beloved mother, Anne-Laure Steele, was detested throughout our familial estate, and for two sound reasons. First, as I mentioned, she was—tragically and irrevocably—French. Second, my mother was beautiful.

I do not mean beautiful in the conventional, insipid fashion; I mean that my mother was actually beautiful, bizarrely so, in the ghostly, wide-gazed sense. She possessed a determined square chin, a chin I share, so that she always looked stubborn even when meekness was selling at a premium. Her hair was dark with a brick-red sheen and her almond-shaped eyes were framed beneath by pretty caverns; her wrists had thin scars like pearlescent bracelets which I did not then understand.

At times she screamed under the indifferent moon in French for my dead father. At others she refused to budge from the bed until, groaning at the slanting afternoon light, she allowed our combined cook and housemaid, Agatha, to ply her with tea.

What’s the matter, Mamma? I would ask softly. Now I am grown, I comprehend her answers far better than I did then.

Only that yesterday was so very, very long.

Only that my eyes are tired and nothing in the new novel I thought I’d like so well means as much to me as I imagined it would.

Only that I cannot think of a useful occupation, and when I do, the task daunts me, and so cannot attempt it anyhow, sweet one.

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