Margot Livesey's new novel, "The Flight of Gemma Hardy," beautifully updates the "Jane Eyre" story, relocating it to Scotland's Orkney Islands and Iceland in the mid-20th century.
‘The Flight of Gemma Hardy’
by Margot Livesey
HarperCollins, 447 pp., $26.99
Could Charlotte Brontë possibly have had an inkling of how the orphan child of her imagination would capture so many hearts? The legacy of “Jane Eyre,” Brontë’s 1847 novel of a young woman alone in the world who movingly finds love, continues to live on, most recently in Margot Livesey’s novel “The Flight of Gemma Hardy.” Though it’s set more than a century later than Brontë’s novel — we first meet Gemma as a child in the late 1950s, with most of the action taking place in the 1960s — it’s yet another revisiting, and another homage, to Brontë’s story. And yes, it works, so much so that this longtime “Jane Eyre” fan — though initially skeptical — couldn’t put it down.
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As we meet Gemma, she’s an unloved orphan living in the home of her aunt in Perthshire, Scotland. Her parents — an Icelandic father and Scottish mother — died in Iceland when Gemma was very small; her kind uncle, a minister, is also gone. Those who know “Jane Eyre” settle in comfortably in the early pages, as we know exactly what’s coming next: years at a miserable boarding school; a post as governess in a far-away, remote estate; an unexpected love affair with the brooding, mysterious master of the house; fleeing that love when his dark secret is revealed; devastation, loneliness and quiet recovery; and finally, the return of love, in a most unexpected way.
Livesey, the Scottish-born author of several novels (including the prizewinning “The House on Fortune Street”) is up against something of a literary barrel here: She can’t plausibly give us a madwoman in the attic — one of the great plot twists of literature, but one harder to pull off in the days of smaller houses and fewer staff — and so she doesn’t, but the result is that Mr. Sinclair’s (i.e. Mr. Rochester’s) dark secret is disappointingly gray. But the rest of the plot admirably mirrors Brontë’s novel without following it slavishly, and Livesey’s descriptions and characterizations (particularly the miserable Claypoole School, where “working girls” are supposedly attending on scholarship, but in reality are pulled from their studies to scrub floors and peel potatoes) have a familiar, appealing urgency. The substitution of Scotland’s Orkney Islands for the north country of England is nicely atmospheric — you can hear the crunch of shells below Gemma’s feet, and feel the gray wind — and the heroine’s ultimate pilgrimage to Iceland a moving homecoming. (Though it does seem odd for a Jane Eyre-equivalent to travel by plane.)
And Gemma herself takes hold of the book — and the reader — as both a nod to her predecessor and her own vivid creation. More forthright and daring than the nineteenth-century Jane could dare be, she’s a survivor who, in her own words, “was prepared to go to almost any lengths to get what I wanted.” What she wants is a sense of home — an understanding of her place in the world — and when she finally finds it, not with a “Reader, I married him” but with a new sense of freedom and possibility, it’s thoroughly satisfying. With “The Flight of Gemma Hardy,” you sense that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller — and that, quite possibly, Brontë herself might have approved.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.