I’ve always had an interesting relationship with Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. I first got to know it via my grandmother who re-read it often in the final years of her life. It was easy to see how much she loved the book.
Three years after her death, I first read it for a high school class. I felt sure I would love it too …and felt terribly disappointed when I didn’t. I suspect I just wasn’t ready for the story yet. That my initial response felt flat may have also been because of my deep desire to love it for my grandmother’s sake.
Eventually I fell into the story the way I had hoped to the first time. It happened in a college class. Multiple readings and a number of movie adaptations later have left me with a definite fondness for Jane Eyre, which is what recently led me to pick up Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
I confess I was intrigued at the idea of an “updated” Jane Eyre. Homages to Austen abound, but this is the first time I’ve read an attempt to update Bronte. (I assume other attempts are out there and I’m just behind the curve.)
Livesey decided to bring the story into the 20th century and set it in Scotland and Iceland, both fascinating choices. Gemma, this version’s Jane, is an orphan, born to a Scottish mother and Icelandic father. When her parents pass away in her early childhood, she is brought from Iceland to Scotland by her mother’s brother. She is warmly embraced by her beloved Uncle, who makes her a part of his family, but when he dies in an accident when Gemma is only ten, her Aunt and cousins begin to treat her like a distant acquaintance. Her older boy cousin bullies her and the girls closer to her age either tease her or ignore her. Her Aunt is truly cold. Her only allies are the family cook and a sad but likable school teacher who tries to encourage her in her studies.
Gemma is smart enough, even at ten, to realize that her next years will be miserable ones if she doesn’t try to find another home. She applies and is accepted as a “working girl” pupil at a boarding school called Claypoole. Claypoole gives Bronte’s original Lowood a run for its money in coldheartedness and neglect. It felt a little harder to believe that such a school could exist in the mid-20the century (given child labor laws and so forth) but then again, sin is sin in any age, and there will sadly always be people who take advantage of vulnerable populations such as poor children.
These early sections of the novel fare well as an update of Bronte’s classic. Gemma’s Dursley-ish relatives and her difficult years at Claypoole echo Jane’s early years and yet are invested with fresh details that make Gemma’s character come alive as Gemma, not just a pale echo of Jane. Her desire for friendship, fascination with bird-watching, and interest in her distant Icelandic past make the character real and sympathetic. Although any Bronte reader can guess the contours of what’s coming – the one true friend dying at school, Gemma leaving school to become a governess on a wealthy estate – it’s still interesting to see how those contours play out in a new setting and with a character who traverses them differently than Jane.
The novel fares less well once we arrive at Blackbird Hall, the update of Thornfield. The rich and sophisticated Hugh Sinclair is this novel’s re-imagined Mr. Rochester. Like Rochester, he gets relatively few scenes and we mostly come to know him through the main character’s eyes. Unlike Rochester, he never seems all that alluring or mysterious.
This may have to do with the fact that Livesey has stepped away from the gothic sensibilities in which Jane Eyre is drenched. That’s probably a smart and even necessary move, but it means that Sinclair’s past, though not without its secrets, feels a lot less murky. He’s more a genial middle-aged man who has made mistakes and would like a renewed shot at happiness with a younger woman whose innocent strength refreshes him than a grizzled, damaged old soul who has done some awful things and finds, in an unexpected soul mate, his one chance at redemption.
I kept waiting, truly curious, for the updated big “reveal” – knowing that Sinclair couldn’t possibly have a mad wife in the attic – the moment that would shock and dismay Gemma so much that she would be compelled to run off, alone and friendless, into the modern-day equivalent of the ruthless moors. The equivalent of those moors, the streets of a Scottish city where Gemma finds herself wandering without any cash (her purse having been stolen on a bus) turn out to be an effective setting for her to do some painful but necessary growing up. It’s in that city that she meets the re-imagined St. John and his sisters, with a scholarly postman named Archie standing in for St. John. I confess I liked Archie immensely and was frustrated by the plot point employed to get him offstage and move Gemma on to her search for birth relatives in Iceland.
But I wasn’t convinced that Mr. Sinclair’s revelations about his past were sufficiently shocking enough, or carried enough weight into the present, to compel Gemma to run off from his estate, and their imminent wedding, in the first place. Bronte gave us big plot points – outer events and moral dilemmas that cause Jane to run. I couldn’t shake the sense that this novel, by contrast, relies more on Gemma’s inner emotional promptings and psychological misgivings. Despite her attraction to Mr. Sinclair, something about the potential new life with him just doesn’t feel right to her. She intuits that she hasn’t seen enough of the world or learned enough about who she is, in and of herself, to make the decision to get married.
Funnily enough, it’s this subtle move that ends up feeling like the book’s biggest departure from its source material: to me, despite hardships and emotional privations, the faith-filled Jane Eyre always feels deeply sure of her own soul, just unsure of how best to live out her love in a very broken and imperfect situation. Marriage and caring for another flawed human being are doorways for Jane, doorways that never seem to threaten or diminish her sense of self, but only provide real ways to flourish. Gemma, though highly intelligent and sensitive, feels much more insecure about who she is, and – perhaps in the book’s nod to the more contemporary ethos – worries that marrying too quickly will somehow rob her of the chance to find out.
Though the ending didn’t quite work for me, I’m still glad that I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Livesey’s lovely prose and well-drawn characters drew and kept me in the story, and though I didn’t agree with all her story choices, I was intrigued by many of them. I appreciate any novel that makes me think about narrative choices this much. I also appreciate the strength of a re-imagined classic that refuses to cling so strongly to the original that its voice feels like a weak echo. That never happens here. Though Gemma and Jane might not understand each other entirely, I definitely have a sense that, if they could ever meet, they’d find plenty to talk about.