By Kelsey A. Liebenson-Morse
Margot Livesey’s novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is a bold and brave new adaption of Charlotte Bronte’s much beloved Jane Eyre. Being a devoted fan of Jane Eyre, it was with some trepidation I decided to try out Livesey’s novel (fearing the book would do nothing but tamper with my indelible image of Jane and Rochester locked in eternal love), but I was delighted to find the novel immensely readable, versatile, and true to the original, in the ways that matter, while also maintaining its own identity.
Livesey’s novel begins much like Bronte’s: cue in fiery young orphan; orphan goes to terrible boarding school; orphan takes mysterious job as an au pair…you know the rest. Gemma Hardy bears striking resemblances to Jane Eyre in a few significant ways: she’s small, dark, bright, and she has a will others around her find difficult to contend with and understand. Most importantly, Gemma and Jane share an iron will and inner grit that makes them survivors. No matter what the world takes from them, both women persevere with grace and dignity.
One of the few areas I found lacking in Gemma was the connection between Blackbird Hall’s master, Mr. Sinclair and Gemma. What brings Rochester and Jane together is their equally matched intellect, lively conversation, and the recognition of someone to challenge and to compliment one another–a partner in life and love. Although separated by age, class, and wealth, Jane and Rochester have no choice but to be together. As Rochester confessed, “I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.” It is this terrible and real romance that makes Jane Eyre one of my favorite novels; the love story between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair simply doesn’t have the same emotional depth. Mr. Sinclair’s “crazy wife upstairs” secret is nowhere as devious and scandalous as the original, so Gemma’s “flight” seems simulated. Their attraction to one another seems more like a fleeting crush then the stuff of eternity.
The novel is set primarily on the Orkney Islands, and I was particularly captivated by Livesey’s lush descriptions of a harsh, striking landscape. She writes about the Orkneys in a way that only one who loves them can, and her admiration for the island sets a lovely backdrop for the novel. “Beyond the farmyard not a single tree broke the horizon. In on field several black cows ignored me; in another a flock of curlews, pecking at the stubble with their curved beaks, took wing to my approach.” Livesey’s attention to detail makes the Islands easy to imagine.
Livesey’s novel departs from Bronte’s drastically in the third part of the novel, when Gemma flees her would-be husband and heads out on her own. Gemma ends up in a sleepy town, and becomes a member of the sympathetic Watson family–comprised of brother Archie, sister Hannah, and Hannah’s partner Pauline–in a seemingly unconnected sub-plot about lesbian acceptance in small town, 1960s Scotland. From there, she begins to discover herself, finding passion in continuing her education and caring for a small boy. Through this process, Gemma embarks on a trip to her native Iceland, and stumbles upon parts of her personal history she never knew existed. We’re with Gemma from a young age, as we are with Jane, and Livesey makes Gemma’s journey from childhood to womanhood enjoyable and compelling to follow. From the windswept fields of Kirkwall to the shores of Iceland, we stand by, root for, and wish her well. Just as Bronte did, Livesey creates a character you cannot help but fall in love with.