I grabbed this book at a garage sale because 1. I liked the cover, 2. I’m looking for new books to read and can’t get to the library often, and 3. I very quickly skimmed the first few sentences of the summary and it sounded interesting.
I started reading it that night, and was immediately struck by how very similar to Jane Eyre it was, which confused me for a second as the part of the summary I’d read didn’t mention it being a retelling. So I scanned the back again, and there at the top as a review for the book was the statement: “In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey offers a new telling of Jane Eyre, for which no contemporary writer is better suited.”
I have mentioned before that Jane Eyre is my absolute favorite book, so once I knew that this was supposed to be a modern retelling, my inner critic was alerted and I read this book with a very judgmental eye. Probably more so than if it wasn’t supposed to be an homage to my favorite story. So keep in mind, this review might be tinged with prejudice, because I give no leniency where Jane Eyre retellings are concerned. (ha!)
The Summary (from the back of the book): “Taken from her native Iceland to Scotland in the early 1950’s when her widower father drowns at sea, young Gemma Hardy comes to live with her kindly uncle and his family. But his death leaves Gemma under the care of her resentful aunt, and she suddenly finds herself an unwelcome guest. Surviving oppressive years at a strict private school, Gemma ultimately finds a job as an au pair to the eight-year-old niece of Mr. Sinclair on the Orkney Islands — and here, at the mysterious and remote Blackbird Hall, Gemma’s greatest trial begins.”
First things first, and this is just my prejudice speaking: I really don’t like the names she chose to replace Edward Rochester and Thornfield Hall. Hugh Sinclair of Blackbird Hall just doesn’t quite have the same mystery to them. But that could just be my everlasting love for Rochester speaking.
The book opens much as Jane Eyre does, with mention of a walk (my first clue to its classically based background), an introduction of Gemma’s cousins (Will, Veronica, Louise — second clue) with whom she of course has a less-than-favorable relationship, an explanation of her uncle’s death and her aunt’s sudden change of attitude, and how she had become no better than a servant in the house after her beloved uncle died.
It then eventually moves on to Claypoole boarding school where Gemma is ensconced as a working girl — a girl who is a charity case and works off her debt to the school by way of working the kitchens, cleaning, doing laundry, and performing every other menial task possible besides taking classes, studying, and passing exams — amongst ten or so others, all of whom are viewed as less important than the regular (paying) attendees of the school. Life is hard for Gemma, as the other working girls follow the lead of Ross (last name), who is portrayed as a dull bully and the leader of the group, and she is oppressed by them to some extent. There is of course the Helen character, Miriam, who becomes Gemma’s only friend (sadly, not redheaded as she was in JE), who eventually dies, and whose death brings Gemma a way to communicate with the outside world as the girls of Claypoole are not allowed outside contact. (To hide the horrible conditions of the school.)
The entire plot of the first part of the book — it’s broken into three acts — very much follows the plot of Jane Eyre, if in a less detailed and more 1950’s appropriate way. Unlike Jane Eyre, there are small touches of sexual innuendos throughout — the girls ganging up on one working girl and pulling off her bra to expose her, Gemma coming upon two of the others one by one “laying” under a farm boy in the summer between the rows of raspberries, and other small innuendos that Gemma, being very young and innocent, does not understand. I am guessing this was a way for the author to modernize the book, but I nearly wished she had left these things out. To me, it was a way to demean the story, making it more crudely reality based, and less of an eloquent tale.
As the years pass, Gemma’s stubbornness gets her through classes that teachers are determined to hold her back in, and to everyone’s surprise she graduates with high marks, as she is a very bright girl. Following the suggestion of the one trustworthy teacher at the school (the only one who does not eat out of the headmistress’s hand), she sends out inquiries to become a nanny, and thus we enter part two.
As with Jane Eyre, Gemma stays at Blackbird Hall for many months before ever meeting Mr. Sinclair; the housekeeper is Mr. Sinclair’s very distant cousin, and Gemma’s student, Nell, is badly schooled. Unlike Jane Eyre, Vicky (housekeeper) has a stern and loutish brother, Seamus, who works the grounds, and Nell is the daughter of Mr. Sinclair’s sister, who died mysteriously. As well, it takes Gemma several weeks to even make a connection with Nell, as Nell has run wild and free and entirely untrained, and refuses to sit for lessons until Gemma has the idea to begin reading a book aloud. When she gains Nell’s audience and the girl demands more, Gemma strikes a deal: one hour of book reading a day in return for morning lessons.
Overall, the story follows the premise of Jane Eyre loosely, adding once again more indications of sex with Gemma’s friends who speak of such things, and Todd, the brother of Gemma’s friend, who briefly pursues Gemma, kisses her, tells her she’s pretty, and, tries to put his hand down her shirt. (Later, by way to Scrabble letters while they play as a team against a few others, he secretly spells out “sex later” and she unwittingly spells “yes” a few moves down the game). But on the same night, Gemma comes upon Mr. Sinclair, whose car broke down and who, while changing the tire, sprains his finger. After short conversation, they part ways, only for Gemma to find out, of course, who Mr. Sinclair is.
Throughout the rest of the book, we meet the few other characters who follow the basic premise of Jane Eyre — Coco, who is Blanche’s replacement, and Archie, Helen, and Pauline, who replace St John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary. However, instead of being a tool to spark jealousy or discern whether Gemma has feelings for Mr. Sinclair, Coco is merely a flight of fancy for Sinclair; something to boost his male ego (and she is, of course, a gold digger). Very briefly, Gemma silently implores Sinclair “please don’t” when she spies him leaning in for what appears to be a kiss (it doesn’t happen), and later when someone suggests that perhaps Coco and Sinclair have gone to bed together.
Unfortunately, there is very little indication of a connection between Sinclair and Gemma, so at this point her silent pleading seems like little else than that she views Coco as an incredibly airheaded gold digger, and her concern is more that she does not wish Nell to be subjected to the woman as a mother than that she views Mr. Sinclair as too good for the woman. (In a small way, perhaps she does, but it is not a prevalent point.)
And this is where my criticism begins. Sadly, Gemma and Sinclair have very, very little of Jane and Rochester’s relationship. The point that Coco enters the scene is really the first inkling of any type of concern Gemma has for Sinclair, and the chapters including the former woman are so short that we do not get to delve into whether Gemma’s prejudice against Coco is for her own feelings as well as Nell’s. Coco is hence dispatched swiftly, with a short scene wherein she’s misled to think that Sinclair is bankrupt, and the entire inclusion of her in the story does very little to further the relationship of the two main characters.
Then, when Gemma and Sinclair do finally connect romantically, the relationship comes on very suddenly, and lasts a very short three or four chapters. To me, it was literally one scene with Sinclair and Gemma alone, a storm that causes them to kiss, a flighty relationship, and the revelation of his great secret. (Complaint: there was no modernized version of the greatest, most romantic proposal ever which you should watch here. *swoon*)
The secret, which I will not give away here for those of you who do want to read the book, caused my greatest disappointment. It was nowhere near as shocking or romantic (if you can call Rochester’s secret that) as a crazy wife in the attic; it was not even dramatic enough of a secret to, in my opinion, cause Gemma to neglect her love for Sinclair entirely and run away. It was much more understandable, a mistake made by an 18 year old in order to avoid what he thought would be insanity, and there is no wife, child, or even murder involved (not that there was murder in Jane Eyre, but that would have made it better.) Gemma’s entire reason for deciding not to marry Sinclair after the exposure of his past’s secrets is that he lied to her. Though, to be honest, he didn’t even lie to her in any way that contradicted his secret; nothing he said or implied was in any way opposite his past, he merely did not tell her all. And why should he, when what he “did” happened 23 years prior and was an attempt to benefit more than just himself?
It was at this point that the book lost me a bit, as I had been enjoying the story up until Sinclair and Gemma’s romance began. So, after deciding that she could not marry a “liar”, Gemma flees, becomes destitute and homeless, and is found by Archie, Hannah, and Pauline.
Unlike the book, instead of being a clergy brother and his two sisters, Archie is a postman addicted to cigarettes but with the same “I don’t do people well” attitude as St. John, and Hannah and Pauline are not sisters, but lovers. The change in Archie suits the story well; the change in Hannah and Pauline barely affects the plot at all except to make you wonder whether Gemma, like Jane, would discover that perhaps Archie and Hannah were her cousins. But then you remember that she is from Iceland, and in that land lie any possibilities of her having more family than she knows.
For a while with them, Gemma works as a nanny to a young boy whose grandmother needs help caring for him as her husband had a stroke (I think?) and needs full-time care. After many months of saving up and healing, a proposal from Archie that she realizes she does not want to accept — and, by the way, there is more relationship development between Archie and Gemma though you know he won’t ever love her than there was between Sinclair and Gemma, a sad point — , and a rash decision, Gemma decides to go to Iceland on her own to find out if she had any family at all other than her parents.
Of course, being a Jane Eyre retelling, she does discover family and a small inheritance; she does hear Sinclair calling out to her on the wind (at least there’s that), and she decides not to marry Archie.
And then comes the end, which was the second most disappointing way to end something based on Jane Eyre. I won’t give it away exactly, but let’s just say… with no crazy wife in his attic, there is no way for Gemma to return to find a destitute and damaged Sinclair regretting his youthful decisions and insisting that she should not tie herself to him as an old cripple. Instead, he is hale and hearty, though he did miss her, and… well, you’ll have to read it for yourself. It was not that romantic of an end to the story, and I very heartily wished Sinclair’s secret had been as dramatic as Rochester’s, because then the ending would not have been so diluted from its origins.
Overall, though, it was a book worth reading, and had Jane Eyre not been my favorite book, I would probably have less criticism for it. It’s well written, pays homage to its origins well without being an exact copy, and is still an interesting story despite its shortcomings due to plot changes. Nothing will ever match up to the sweep and romance of Jane Eyre in my opinion, but I am glad that I grabbed The Flight of Gemma Hardy because it proved to be a good way to spend a few sick days, and inspired me to start writing again. And, despite the critiques I have, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a classic story with a modern twist.
Have you read the book, or any other by Margot Livesey? What did you think?
I hope you all have a fantastic Thursday!