Monday, July 9, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

 When classic stories are reworked for a modern setting they're often pleasantly entertaining at best and and a recipe for disaster at worst. Because of this, I was intrigued yet apprehensive when I picked up The Flight of Gemma HardyMargot Livesey's retelling of Jane Eyre set in 1950's Scotland and Iceland. I didn't have to read very far into the novel to realize that my fears were ungrounded. Livesey strikes just the right balance, skillfully walking the line between conforming to Bronte's original details and diverging from them when needed. She creates a novel that is entertaining, but that also brings some fresh insights to a well known story.

Livesey's novel adheres quite closely to Bronte's plot, with Gemma Hardy standing in for the original title character. Gemma is a girl of Icelandic origins who, after becoming orphaned at a young age, is taken to Scotland by her kindly uncle. His eventual death leads to mistreatment at the hands of her aunt and cousins, years spent at a harsh boarding school, and eventual employment on the Orkney Islands as an au pair for the wealthy Mr. Sinclair. Although the overall narrative arc was familiar from having reread Jane Eyre so many times, my reaction to the various parts of the story was surprisingly different. When I read Jane Eyre, I tend to get a little impatient during the first third of the book. I'm secretly thinking, "Okay, horrible childhood, I get it, now let's get to the good part." In Gemma Hardy, though, I found the beginning to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. The trials that Jane Eyre faces have almost become too easy to digest under the assumption that that kind of bleak, Dickensian treatment of the poor and orphaned was just par for the course in that era. The time period of Gemma Hardy, so much closer to our own, makes the abuse she suffers seem all the more poignant. The same is true for the latter portion of the book, after Gemma runs away from her post with Mr. Sinclair. Jane's suffering after her escape is, of course, terrible, but a coach ride, wanderings on the moors, and eventual rescue by lovely, cottage-dwelling siblings seem almost picturesque compared to the much more looming threats that Gemma faces when she finds herself penniless on the streets of a foreign city. Her struggles heighten the sense that, during the course of the story, Gemma truly finds a place for herself for herself, not simply in relation to a Mr. Rochester figure.

And speaking of Mr. Rochester, the tension in the relationship between the two lead characters was another aspect of the story that was interestingly heightened here. When I read Jane Eyre, I'm probably guilty of doing a little mental photoshopping to make Mr. Rochester into a more appealing romantic figure. It's easy to picture his "older" age as being, say, mid-thirties, and tell myself that young brides were nothing unusual in those days. It's a lot harder to put a glossy coat on a relationship between a 41-year-old man and a nineteen-year-old girl living in the 1950's. Although Livesey highlights the bond they share, some of their interactions were downright uncomfortable to read, and I can't help but wonder if this creates a literary experience closer to what Bronte originally intended for readers of her time.

My only complaint with the book was the ending. The final reunion between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair is squeezed into a handful of pages and felt both rushed and flat. I suspect that the specific circumstances of the ending, which I won't reveal, may have been intended to portray Gemma and Mr. Sinclair becoming more equal to each other, but it just didn't work for me. Yet even though a problematic ending may seem like a big flaw, it's truly just a minor issue in light of the rest of the novel and doesn't keep Gemma Hardy from being a must-read for Jane Eyre fans.


  1. I LOVE THIS BOOK! My heart literally skipped a beat when I saw your post. It was so, so, so good. Agree with you on the ending, it left me wanting for more. It just ended too fast.

  2. This sounds so good! I will try to get this book soon. Thanks so much for your review.

  3. Adding it to my ever growing list.. sounds interesting.



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