It’s hard to name a novel more beloved than Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Billed as one of the first feminist love stories, it has inspired countless sighs from lovers of literature over the centuries.
April 21, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, and two timely new releases honor Charlotte and her family’s enduring legacy. Though these two books have very different tones and approaches, their shared affection for the Brontës unites them.
The setup of Catherine Lowell’s debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, is an English major’s fantasy come true. Heroine Samantha Whipple is an awkward bookworm who heads off to Oxford University to read literature—and just happens to be the Brontës’ last living descendent. As she butts heads with her brooding-yet-irresistible tutor, a mysterious package from her deceased father arrives. Suddenly Sam is on a scavenger hunt that promises to lead her to her inheritance: items belonging to the Brontë estate that Sam has always considered nothing but a rumor . . . until now.
Crammed with myriad allusions to the entire Brontë clan’s canon, Lowell’s novel will appeal not only to Brontë megafans, but also to readers who like a healthy helping of literary criticism alongside their fiction. When Sam isn’t off solving her father’s cryptic clues, she’s arguing with her professor about how to correctly read literature in general—and the Brontës’ works in particular.
Filled with hyperlexic ripostes and an academic heroine who is the dictionary definition of quirky, this is a story that will please readers of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele is a very different form of tribute. Just a few pages in, Faye’s Jane utters the line, “Reader, I murdered him,” which tells you exactly the kind of book you are in for. A somewhat satirical riff on Jane Eyre, the novel reimagines Brontë’s iconic heroine with not only a will of iron but also the heart of a hot-blooded killer. This Jane embraces her “wicked” side and isn’t afraid to avenge herself against those who do her wrong. (Watch out, teachers at Lowood.)
Readers worried that Jane Steele is simply a retread of Jane Eyre with more blood and gore, à la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, fear not. Just when you think you know what is coming next, Jane Steele takes things in a completely different direction. Faye is also the author of four acclaimed historical mysteries, and she juxtaposes a textured Victorian setting with more modern (and thus, more ambiguous) morality. Jane Steele is equal parts irreverent and refreshing. It’s also, remarkably, no less of a page-turner than the classic to which it pays homage.