Book Talk: *The Flight of Gemma Hardy*, by Margot Livesey (TLC Book Tour)

cover of THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY by Margot Livesey (Harper Perennial trade PB)
The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel
Margot Livesey (Facebook) (Twitter)
Harper Perennial (June 2012), Paperback (ISBN 0062064231 / 9780062064233)
Fiction, 480 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour

Opening lines: “We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year. The Christmas snow had melted, and rain had been falling since dawn, darkening the shrubbery and muddying the grass, but that would not have stopped my aunt from dispatching us. She believed in the benefits of fresh air for children in all weather, Later, I understood, she also enjoyed the peace and quiet of our absence.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
The resonant story of a young woman’s struggle to take charge of her own future, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a modern take on a classic story—Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Taken from her native Iceland to Scotland in the early 1950s 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.

Comments: The literary sub-genre of “re-worked classics” seems to offer a good deal of potential discussion fodder. Are these works a more highbrow variant of fan-fiction? Do they have a built-in audience thanks to their basis in known source material, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? My short answers to those questions would be “depends,” “probably,” and again “depends,” but longer, more thoughtful ones are certainly warranted.

Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy reworks a particularly enduring classic, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’ve read the original just once, during a university-era project to fill gaps in my literary experience. My response to it was largely indifferent (although I greatly preferred it to her sister Emily’s sole novel, Wuthering Heights) and my recollections of it are vague on details (although they were sufficient to get me through Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair). For the most part, I like Jane as a character, but I really don’t find Rochester or her relationship with him appealing (although I appreciate having an opportunity to link to Rhapsody Jill’s outstanding analysis of that appeal); for me, …Gemma Hardy’s inspiration wasn’t a compelling reason to read the novel. But as I learned more about the book’s merits apart from its source material, I grew more interested, and I’ve been meaning to read Margot Livesey for a while.

…Gemma Hardy follows the basic framework of Jane Eyre: A bright young orphan is exiled to a terrible boarding school where she is treated more as laborer than student. When the school closes and she is forced to leave, she has few options and fewer resources, and takes a job as a live-in nanny/teacher at a remote estate, where she becomes intrigued by its mysterious master. However, Livesey has relocated the story’s place and time to Scotland in the mid-twentieth century, and for me, the more modern setting was an asset to both plot and character development. She also uses Brontë’s model of first-person narration, but gives Gemma a distinctive voice and a unique history; our Scottish orphan was born in Iceland, and is deeply curious to know more about her native land and whether she has family remaining there.

Perhaps it’s because I did only read it once and my memory is faulty, but I think of Jane Eyre as primarily a romance…and one that I don’t find particularly romantic or convincing. …Gemma Hardy’s involvement with her employer/fiancé Mr. (Hugh) Sinclair is the Jane/Rochester plot, and while I found it somewhat more appealing here–mainly because I think Sinclair is a more interesting character than Rochester–I still didn’t find it terribly romantic or convincing. I preferred the novel before and after that, and was drawn to Gemma on her own, with her resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive. I didn’t entirely buy the events of the last several chapters of the novel, but considering how Gemma came to them, they felt right.

I’d like to revisit that fan-fiction question another time, but I do think that fiction based on other fiction does have certain potential advantages in attracting an audience. On the other hand, those same qualities can have the opposite effect, either turning fans of the original against the retelling or discouraging interest from non-fans. I fell into the second camp for a while with The Flight of Gemma Hardy and its Jane Eyre connection, but I’m glad I got over myself–for me, this was a more satisfying read than its inspiration.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour

Tuesday, June 26th: The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, June 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, June 28th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Monday, July 2nd: Twisting the Lens
Tuesday, July 3rd: Walking With Nora
Wednesday, July 4th: Bibliosue
Wednesday, July 4th: Bibliophiliac
Monday, July 9th: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, July 10th: Book Club Classics!
Wednesday, July 11th: Laura’s Reviews
Thursday, July 12th: Broken Teepee
Wednesday, July 18th: My Bookshelf
Thursday, July 19th: Lit and Life
TBD: Book Reviews, Fiction Reflections, ‘ More!

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