Jane Eyre is the book that made me a reader. I remember how the little paperback felt in my hand—with a faded cover in streaky blue, purple, and green stripes, a line drawing of Charlotte Bronte off to one side. The pages felt like velvet when I fanned them through my fingers. (More about my love of reading)
The Flight of Gemma Hardy is Margot Livesey’s re-telling of Jane Eyre. Last Sunday, I attended a local literary tea at which Livesey was one of the featured novelists. (I moved the novel up on my reading list because I’ve never read anything by Livesey.) She noted the long tradition of authors answering earlier authors, citing as an example Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a modern version of King Lear.
Gemma Hardy is set in early 1960s Scotland, but true to the original, there is an orphan, a cruel aunt and cousins, a wretched school, and a little girl who needs a nanny. Livesey adds some interesting twists, making Gemma more sociable than Jane and giving her a mysterious Icelandic heritage. Her Mr. Rochester is Hugh Sinclair, a London banker who stills maintains the family farm in the Orkneys; the isolation of Thornfield Hall is transposed to quiet rural life on a remote island.
Livesey, a native of Scotland, describes in beautiful detail the wild landscapes, ancient monuments, and—of special interest to Gemma—the native birds. One of the pleasures of this book is Livesey’s careful attention to the smallest details, making Gemma’s world vivid and believable.
While Gemma Hardy doesn’t share the same emotional intensity as Jane Eyre, it does answer the question that Livesey poses (as Bronte did before her): how can a young woman without family, friends, or fortune make her way in the world? I enjoyed all the ways that Gemma Hardy echoes Jane Eyre—and all the ways that it becomes its own story, with new characters, settings, and ideas.