Thanks to the recent surge of mash-ups of classic literature with the supernatural, the literary heroines of the 19th century are finding a new audience with today’s readers. How many people knew who Elizabeth Bennett was before she became an expert zombie killer in last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Even if you had a passing familiarity with Jane Austen’s 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, knowing already how Elizabeth stood out from the rest of her superficial ilk, it’s doubtful that you found her to be, shall we say, badass. After reading how she’s able to roundhouse-kick the head off an attacking ‘unmentionable’ while adhering to propriety, I bet you do now.
The latest literary character to go badass is Jane Eyre, who is now a slayer of various supernatural beings, in Sherri Browning Erwin’s new Jane Slayre. While Charlotte Brontë’s Jane always manages to land on her feet, in Erwin’s version, she also has the added inherent ability to defeat vampyres, zombies, and other creatures of the night no matter how downtrodden her personal life may be. With a name like Slayre, you’d think the young orphaned Jane would question her heritage, but she finds out soon enough that slaying is in her blood. But Slayre is more than just a clever play on the Eyre surname (though, it is quite clever): Of all the mash-ups out there, I’d say having Jane Eyre combating supernatural beings is not so far fetched, considering that before the reinvented Jane ever picked up the stake, she was already a well-established Gothic heroine.
Brontë’s 1847 classic Jane Eyre is a staple of Victorian Gothic fiction, with its ghostly visitations, haunting dreams, and gloomy abodes. Nothing emphasizes this more perfectly than The Illustrated Jane Eyre, in which artist Dame Darcy depicts Jane in all her Goth glory. Even though in the text Jane is descriptively too plain in countenance and positive in demeanor to be considered a true Goth girl by today’s standards, the reader knows there’s something different about her. She’s often referred to as “not handsome” and “Quakerish” in appearance—albeit, by the book’s more ill-mannered characters—but Darcy’s images of Jane resemble Emily then Strange more than Elizabeth Bennett, which is in stark contrast to F. H. Townsend’s classic Victorian pencil sketches in the book’s 1896 edition.
Upon first glance at the hefty book’s artwork, it’s obvious that the illustrations would have made for an attractive graphic novel, a medium in which Darcy first made her mark with the comic book series Meat Cake. Penguin Books, however, had a better idea. The publisher gave the Idaho native free rein to interpret the classic novel her own way with hundreds of original images—strangely enough, it works and works well.
The 2005 Illustrated Jane Eyre is the entire original text by Brontë interspersed with Darcy’s black and white line drawings, as well as watercolor paintings. Jane is a vision in black, with dark wide eyes, pale skin, and long, jet-black hair. Particularly morbid encounters, like when the ghost of Jane’s uncle haunts her or when she lies beside her dying friend Helen, are made eerier by Darcy’s interpretations. This is the Jane one would imagine driving a wooden stake through the heart of a bloodsucking fiend. Perhaps Gallery Books, publishers of Jane Slayre, should have employed the same technique for their supernatural tome, as it would have made a nice accompaniment to their literary twist.
The reinvented Jane—the aforementioned badass slayer—whether illustrated or not, suffers the same privations as the classic Jane Eyre: a severe upbringing by a mean, heartless aunt who despises her and later a stint at a boarding school where the students live under harsh conditions, often left cold and starving. After her pleasant, but brief time as a governess at the Rochester mansion Thornfield, misfortune strikes again, leaving Jane worse off than she’d ever been. The difference in Erwin’s tale is that Jane’s Aunt Reed and her children are all vampyres, and Jane lives in constant fear of becoming her cousin John’s late night snack. And the boarding school, well, it has some “special” students who not only abstain from eating, but under no circumstances may they be allowed to eat meat, because it makes them ravenous—oh, and murderous. It’s at the school that Jane learns how she can “save” the special students and begins her training as a slayer, which proves greatly useful later on when a vampyre attacks her during Mr. Rochester’s marriage proposal.
As with Jane Erye, Jane the slayer is also visited by the ghost of her deceased Uncle Reed, the only relative she knew of that actually cared about her. In this vision, her uncle implores her to “fulfill her destiny” as a Slayre and to save the souls of the “lost.” I imagine this scene to be much the one in The Empire Strikes Back when Obi-Wan’s spirit appears to Luke Skywalker instructing him to go to the Dagaboh system where he will learn the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda.
Uncle Reed isn’t the only apparition to give Jane guidance. Just after Jane discovers her paramour Mr. Rochester’s tragic secret, the spirit of her mother comes to her: “My daughter, follow your instincts. Seek the Slayres.” (Slayres, you seek Slayres!) With ample reason to flee Thornfield, Jane assumes a new identity and follows her instincts to the remote town of Whitcross, where she meets the clergyman and missionary St. John Rivers and his sisters. Since the town had been besieged by vampyres, St. John set up schools to teach the children of Whitcross how to defend against their attackers, so Jane assumes that she was compelled to go to Whitcross to help in this cause. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but I won’t spoil it for those of you unfamiliar with either story, but I will say that the Jane Slayre version is a bit more surprising.
Whether portrayed with a Goth countenance or as a 19th century Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jane’s story is compelling. The illustrated novel might prompt a younger crowd to pick up the book, while Jane Slayre is for anyone who likes the macabre and dislikes having to use the dictionary (the original version has many archaic words that you will need to look up). Literary purists might have trouble with the illustrations and most definitely will have issues with the slayerized version, but I found that they both pumped new life into the story, and put a much-deserved spotlight on the classic tale.
Visit Erwin’s site to read an excerpt from Jane Slayre. For a chance to win one of five copies of Jane Slayre, enter Geeks of Doom’s contest and be sure to put the words “Tor.com” in the “Additional Comments” field of the entry form to double your chances of winning.