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My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand (1)

You may think you know the story.

Oh, heard that one, have you? Well, we say again: you may think you know the story. By all accounts it’s a good one: a penniless, orphaned young woman becomes a governess in a wealthy household, catches the eye of the rich and stern master, and (sigh) falls deeply in love. It’s all very passionate and swoonworthy, but before they can be married, a—gasp!—terrible treachery is revealed. Then there’s fire and despair, some aimless wandering, starvation, a little bit of gaslighting, but in the end, the romance works out. The girl (Miss Eyre) gets the guy (Mr. Rochester). They live happily ever after. Which means everybody’s happy, right?

Um . . . no. We have a different tale to tell. (Don’t we always?) And what we’re about to reveal is more than a simple reimagining of one of literature’s most beloved novels. This version, dear reader, is true. There really was a girl. (Two girls, actually.) There was, indeed, a terrible treachery and a great fire. But throw out pretty much everything else you know about the story. This isn’t going to be like any classic romance you’ve ever read.

It all started, if we’re going to go way, way back, in 1788 with King George III. The king had always been able to see ghosts. No big deal, really. He didn’t find them frightening in the least. Sometimes he even had amusing conversations with long-deceased courtiers and unfairly beheaded queens who were floating about the palace grounds.

But one day, disaster struck. The king was walking in the garden when a mischievous ghost rattled the branches of a nearby tree.

“Who’s there?” called the king, because, as it happened, he was without his spectacles.

“Look at me,” answered the troublesome ghost in its most stately voice. “I’m the King of Prussia!”

The king immediately dropped into a bow. Quite coincidentally, he had been expecting a visit from the King of Prussia. “I am most pleased to meet you, Your Highness!” he exclaimed.

Then he tried to shake the tree’s hand.

This, again, would have been no big deal, but for the dozen or so lords and ladies who had accompanied the king on his walk in the garden, who didn’t see the ghost, of course, only the king mistaking a tree for royalty. From that moment on, poor George was referred to as “Mad King George,” a title he greatly resented.

So George assembled a team made up of every kind of person he thought could help him be rid of these irksome ghosts: priests who specialized in exorcisms, doctors with some knowledge of the occult, philosophers, scientists, fortune-tellers, and anybody, in general, who dabbled in the supernatural.

And that’s how the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits was established.

In the years that followed, the Society, as it came to be called, functioned as a prominent and well-respected part of English life. If there was something strange in your neighborhood, you could, um, write the Society a letter, and they would promptly send an agent to take care of it.

Fast-forward right past the reign of George IV, to William IV ascending England’s throne. William was practical. He didn’t believe in ghosts. He considered the Society to be nothing more than a collection of odious charlatans who had been pulling the wool over the eyes of his poor disturbed predecessors for many years. Plus it was a terrible drain on the taxpayers’ dime (er, shilling). So almost as soon as he was officially crowned king, William cut the Society out of the royal budget. This led to his infamous falling-out and subsequent feud with Sir Arthur Wellesley, aka the Duke of Wellington, aka the leader and Lord President of the RWS Society, which was now underfunded and under-respected.

This brings us to the real start of our story: northern England, 1834, and the aforementioned penniless, orphaned girl. And a writer. And a boy with a vendetta.

Let’s start with the girl.

Her name was Jane.

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