The Flight of Gemma HardyMargot Livesey's promotion of her previous novel, The House on Fortune Street, showed us that she was quite a Brontëite and she recently told how she came to write The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
Retelling Jane Eyre seems to be a compelling force to many writers, which only goes to show the strength and reach of Charlotte Brontë's novel. As we have said in previous reviews of retelling, novelists tend to list the highly-marked key events of the novel and elaborate around them as best they know. Not to be misleading about 'originality', Margot Livesey begins by paraphrasing the famous opening line of Jane Eyre:
We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year.
As a disclaimer of this review, we openly state that we are writing it from the point of view of someone very well-acquainted with the original novels. The reading experience of readers who have never read Jane Eyre or who read it casually years ago will be radically different. Where the Jane Eyre connoisseur is hardly ever surprised by the turn events take (or even awaits them to see how they have been redone), the novice is surprised anew.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy moves the action to Scotland in the 1960s. Gemma, our new Jane, was brought from Iceland by her maternal uncle after both her parents died and brought up lovingly by him until his untimely death. The Cinderella-like aspects of Jane Eyre are all there then: Jane banished from the family gatherings and relegated to an attic room and to peeling potatoes in the kitchen with the servant. Unlike Jane, Gemma goes to school and finds a teacher willing to help her and give her advice.
As in An American Heir by Chrissy Breen Keffer, Gemma is sent to a fancy school as a working pupil and befriended there by a Helen Burns-like character. Helen Burns's strength in the original novel lay on her beliefs. The character in An American heir was a bit of a hippy while in The Flight of Gemma Hardy Miriam's spirituality seems to be in seeing a helpful ghost.
It's in these key differences, which help flesh out the story and shape the novel, that the quality of the adaptation seems to be found. If the retelling sticks to the bare bones of the original too much, the story seems lifeless and one wishes to read the original instead. Margot Livesey seems to navigate these rough waters quite aptly. While she sometimes sticks too much to the original plot, she generally speaking does well on her own. It is indeed when she lets her imagination run wild(er) when the novel is at its best. Perhaps, as we said above, this is a 'problem' only encountered by Jane Eyre connoiseurs, but it's there.
Jane Eyre can't be retold easily. As with the new Helen Burns, the context and other key plot elements have to be reshaped. Mr Sinclair - our new Mr Rochester - is a somewhat two-dimensional character. Mr Rochester seems to have been too imposing for Margot Livesey to tackle: she has seemingly watched him and depicted him from afar, as if scared to dig deep in the original and thus to properly breathe life in its modern counterpart. While we can easily see why Jane Eyre is drawn to Mr Rochester, we are not so clear as to what Gemma Hardy sees in Mr Sinclair. In Jane Eyre there was the obvious worldly touch, something Jane had never seen before, but that's all there seems to be to the Hardy-Sinclair relationship.
And there comes the key turning point, which we'd say it's the hardest both to retell and to adapt to a 21st century audience. In the case of this novel it is of course the element that lends its title to the novel, thus marking it out as the main point. And yet, when it comes, the 21st century reader will certainly be baffled. Then, later, when the reader has turned the last page, not only will it all make sense but the reader will marvel at Margot Livesey's brave and risky step. Without wanting to spoil the novel, we will just say that she very craftily moves away the action from Mr Rochester/Mr Sinclair and puts Jane/Gemma at the centre of it.
Which leads us to our 'favourite' part of the novel. Who hasn't experienced the anguish of Jane's wanderings when reading Jane Eyre? It's a painful part of the novel. An anguish which Margot Livesey has recrafted, moved into its own context and done amazingly well. We honestly confess to caring much more about Jane than Gemma, yet Livesey's prose at this point, the anguish she conveys, is - we would hazard - at least as well done as in the original novel and we are sure that some will find it even better, 'sacrilegious' as that might sound.
And thus, Gemma's flight is also, in a way, Livesey's flight and when the novel really goes on in its own. What happens then is - up to a point, this is still a retelling, particularly in the last pages - new even to the Jane Eyre connoisseur.
It takes courage for a Jane Eyre enthusiast to sit down and adapt or retell the novel and that should be taken into account first of all when reviewing a retelling. It's like writing between barriers: you may get too close to them for comfort or you may stray too far from them. It's an impossible hit-or-miss balance whose success lies partly in the writer's skills but also in the reader's mood. As for The Flight of Gemma Hardy, we will hazard that most readers will certainly enjoy it.