Sternberg’s dubious decision to set the plot of Jane Eyre in the US in the 1920s, with a gender switch, is hard to understand. Upon meeting the testy hero of Sloane Hall, John Doyle, you may forget his alter ego, but only for a while. John’s past includes a reformatory, but he has intelligence and ambition. He’s in Hollywood to find work as a cameraman. Advised to let the uproar over “talkies” settle down first, he takes a job as chauffeur for Pauline Sloane, a glamorous but neurotic actress.
Once John becomes involved with Ellie (Pauline’s real name), the antique plot structure begins to show beneath the 20th-century fabric. The staff at the Hall seems familiar; when the housekeeper’s mask slips, we think of another faithful retainer. Ellie’s agent and stepbrother, Morgan, comes and goes, running Ellie’s life. Why does she attack him with a knife? Strange cries emanating from the attic at night disturb John’s sleep. There is a fire…
The author says there’s no “madman” in the attic; but something’s up there. We guess what before John does. What else would explain Ellie’s erratic behavior and her thralldom to Morgan? The familiar plot unrolls downhill from here—John leaves, comes back, finds Ellie and the Hall drastically changed but, perhaps, more accessible to John.
Brontë fans may try to ignore the provenance of Sloane Hall, but that quickly becomes impossible. Ultimately, the translation of a 19th-century melodrama into the argot of the jazz age is simply too jarring. Sternberg should have trusted her own creativity and imagination to give John a better book.