Poltergeists, possessions, pop culture references… My Plain Jane takes the story of Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester, and company to a whole new level.
My Plain Jane is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, but it’s so much more than that. In the hands of The Lady Janies (authors Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton), Jane Eyre’s story becomes one not of duty and romance, but of adventure, friendship, and ghosts. It also answers the interesting question “What if Jane Eyre had the ability to see ghosts?”
With that prompt in mind, this novel takes off on a wild adventure with interesting turns and familiar faces who get caught in some unfamiliar situations. Take what you *think* you know about Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë and throw it out the window.
You’ll enjoy My Plain Jane so much more if you do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m fascinated by history and most classic literature. (I say *most* because I’m not a Jane Austen fan and Pride and Prejudice does nothing for me. #SorryNotSorry) I love reading stories with rich historical contexts and learning more about cultures through fiction.
*But* when a piece of historical fiction expertly pulls off an idea that at first seems too crazy to work (like Jane Eyre seeing ghosts or women fighting in the infantry during World War II)? I’m in. I have no trouble letting go of my historical accuracy hat and just enjoying myself.
And honestly? Nobody does alternate histories and historical retellings better than The Lady Janies.
My Plain Jane tells its own version of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel through the lens of a sort of paranormal mystery. Given the gothic nature of Jane Eyre, this choice, while a bit far-fetched in theory, works really well with the subject material. Like, really, really well.
Yes, the paranormal lens adds a separate storyline to the classic tale English majors all know and love, but it doesn’t take away from it. The ghostly elements add depth to every scene and bring out new and different aspects of characters that have been known so well for so long. For instance, while I was never a huge fan of Jane herself, this book’s portrayal of Jane shines light on previously understated facets of her character. Though it’s not an actual human trait to be able to sense and see the dead, her ability humanizes her and makes her more relatable than ever before.
The paranormal-ness of it all also adds a whole lot of humor. Since not everyone has the ability to see ghosts, it’s comical to read a scene between characters (both humans and ghosts) where only a few people interact with both the living and dead, leaving others lost and confused.
The ghosts’ behavior is also quite entertaining. While some, like Jane’s best friend Helen Burns, are relatively tame, others have quite the personality to them. Of course, the ghosts’ personalities almost directly reflect how they were when they were alive, but their ethereal state allows them more leeway to do what they want, when they want.
The plot, however, isn’t as variable as the ghosts. It can be quite predictable at times (especially for fans of Jane Eyre), but, honestly, it’s about the journey, not the reveals and twists. Retellings are fun because of the comparison factor, not because there are new and interesting major OMG moments. Seeing how the characters come to certain conclusions and watching them discover things that we, the reader, already know is a lot of fun. If you’re someone who thirsts for character development, even at the expense of plot twists, you’re going to love this book.
Grace Poole, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mrs. Fairfax, Edward Rochester, Helen Burns… All of the most notable characters from Jane Eyre get quite a bit to do in this retelling. However, while they’re all recognizable and similar to their counterparts in the source material, they all have unexpected character twists in this. So, while we as readers may have an idea where the story goes, their new character traits take it in different and surprising directions along the way.
There are also a few new faces as well. Take Alexander Blackwell, for instance. He’s one of the novel’s narrators and I’d be so bold as to say that it’s impossible not to fall for him. He’s charming, intelligent, and highly loyal. Plus, he’s a bit of a stiff, so he’s a riot in some of the more playful scenes.
Blackwell may be a new character, but he’s far from being one of the most unexpected characters. That award goes to the Brontë family. The Lady Janies do such a great job with incorporating them that it almost feels like Jane Eyre is incomplete for not featuring them.
Many times, the Brontës (namely Charlotte and her brother Branwell) are used as stand-ins for groups of minor characters which allows them to be directly involved with the story without sacrificing anything. Their involvement in this way allows the reader more time to invest in the characters they know rather than just introducing and under-developing an onslaught of minor characters we’ll never see again.
The Brontës’ inclusion also creates a couple of levels of meta within the story. One one level, we’re given a front row seat to watch Charlotte Brontë craft her classic tale as it unfolds in “real” life before her. This is interesting in that we’re called upon to think about why certain elements of My Plain Jane‘s “real world” didn’t make it in or were changed for her novel. The second level is that, now that Charlotte is a major part of the story, her shift into being a character frees up space for the Lady Janies to become the narrators and make all of the asides and sassy comments that they want to.
Speaking of Charlotte, though: I love Charlotte. Though Charlotte Brontë was a real person, the Charlotte character is more malleable within the context of this story because she doesn’t have abide by certain story and character beats like Jane does. We have very little literature-based information about Charlotte, which allows the authors to really play with her and develop her more. Plus, like us, the readers, she’s the true outsider — not Jane — and so we’re learning about the world alongside her. Honestly, she’s more of the main character than Jane Eyre and I think I love her most.
Out of all of the characters that My Plain Jane shares with its source material, Bertha Rochester (née Mason) makes out the best. Without giving anything away, this novel treats her much better than Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea *combined.* However, because of this treatment, I couldn’t help but question why the story’s version of Charlotte Brontë would make such a formidable woman into the madwoman we read in Jane Eyre. But, perhaps book!Charlotte’s version of the novel is slightly different from the real Charlotte’s(?).
The characters and story in My Plain Jane are great, but my absolute hands-down favorite part of the novel is all. the. SASS. There is seriously SO much sass in this, it’s unbelievable (but in the best way possible). From calling out details that would’ve otherwise been pinpointed as historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies to as ragging on aspects of Victorian culture (like the craziness that were corsets), the Lady Janies are on fire.
And, to enhance that sass, there are a ton of really witty and clever pop culture references. I’m talking references to everything from Jane Eyre‘s contemporaries (like Wuthering Heights‘s Heathcliff and Catherine) to Harry Potter to modern day events like the most recent U.S. presidential inauguration and “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The inclusion of so many pop culture references would take away from the story and the atmosphere of a lesser novel, but the Lady Janies’ skillful writing and world-building help make each reference flourish in its context.
In case you couldn’t tell, I had a blast reading this book. My Plain Jane, like My Lady Jane, perfectly balances historical accuracy and atmosphere, romance, adventure, and pop culture references. Though there are many Jane Eyre retellings out there in the world today, they just don’t compare to this one. It’s more than worth the read.
I seriously love this series and can’t wait to read what the Lady Janies come up with next.