Another day, another book inspired by the Brontës; reader, I love Brontë inspired fiction. Death of a School Girl is a 2012 novel by Joanna Campbell Slan which is inspired by my favourite novel of all time, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). It’s always exciting to discover a new interpretation of Jane’s story, or one that imagines her life after her happy ever after in Charlotte’s novel. So what does Death of a School Girl have to offer for fans of Jane and Charlotte, and does it live up to expectations? There are mild spoilers ahead for anyone who is for some reason not familiar with the plot of Charlotte’s book (how can you not be?).
Death of a School Girl picks up the action shortly after Jane and Rochester’s (actual) wedding as mentioned at the end of Charlotte’s book, and after the arrival of little Ned Rochester as his parents adjust to life at Ferndean and Mr. Rochester’s injuries. Jane’s happy ever after with Mr. Rochester is somewhat disturbed by the receipt of a letter from Mr. Rochester’s ward, Adèle Varens, which contains strangely cold greetings and a scribbled threatening note. The note alarms Jane as she believes the child to be in danger at the boarding school she resides at in London named Alderton House. Readers of Jane Eyre will of course be familiar with Adele’s story, and the attachment between her and her one time governess Jane, and will not doubt Jane’s actions in rushing to investigate, leaving behind her husband and son. Readers familiar with the original tale will also be aware of the fact that upon Jane and Rochester’s marriage, Adèle is removed from the boarding school she has been attending. In this tale she is unaware of the marriage and has always been at Alderton. It’s a minor point but one that for Brontë fans will be hard to get past.
Jane travels to London to stay with one of Rochester’s friends, the wonderful society lady, Lucy Brayton, and intends to visit Adèle at the school. To her surprise, Jane finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation as she arrives at the school just as the body of one of Adèle’s school mates, Selina Biltmore, is being removed. Despite the shock of this, Jane does not remove Adèle from the school but vows to uncover the truth and plots to work undercover at the school with the help of an old friend as well as her new ones. Working against the clock and hoping to prevent a second murder, Jane must work to uncover the truth behind Selina’s death as the motives and suspects continue to pile up.
Part romance, part murder mystery, and part re-imagining of the original text, Death of a School Girl is an enjoyable read which improves as the novel gets into its stride and Jane gets stuck into things. There are some nice nods to the events of Jane Eyre, but there are also parts which divert from the established facts (such as Adèle being unware of the marriage), and also from established character traits (Jane is a bit too clingy and needy for my liking). There are also quite a few cheesy moments between Jane and Rochester which just don’t feel true to their original characters. But then again, love can do strange things to a person so why not also to two fictional characters? The use of Amercian English is also a little jarring and the feel of the original tale is lost. Fortunately, there are some superb new additions such as Lucy and her brother, Mr. Douglas, who acts as a detective type for Jane to access, bounce ideas off, and receive information from. The mysterious characters at the school such as the maid of all jobs, Emma, and the silent footman/dogsbody named Caje, also intrigue the reader.
I’ll admit I thought I knew who the killer was although I couldn’t figure out why. It turns out, I was wrong, but the way in which the reader is blindsided with the revelation of a certain connection to the past is very well done. The reveal and “whodunnit” scene is neatly done and nicely written. The motive very cleverly hidden for those like me who don’t pay as much attention as they think they do. It was a fun guessing game to play as I read along. However, the only issue is that when the identity of the killer is revealed, it really doesn’t seem as though anyone else was ever in any danger of being the next victim. I suppose Jane wasn’t to know that at the start of her investigation though.
Things are tied up neatly enough at the end, although I confess I really didn’t like the ending to Lucy’s story arc. It seemed a poor and unfitting ending for such a lively, likeable, and intelligent a character. As this novel is the first in the Jane Eyre Chronicles, I’ll certainly be reading the second tale, Death of a Dowager. I’ll also be tracking down some of Joanna Campbell Slan’s mystery series.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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