It was hard for me to read this book, and it’s hard for me to write a review of it. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of the classic Jane Eyre. And if you’ve been reading One Little Library for a while or have ever met me, you probably understand why this book is difficult for me.
I really tried to give this a fair shot. I promise. I really believe that a retelling is a new work of art. But I’m biased because Jane Eyre is my favorite book. The book tried too hard to make the plot work in a new setting while abandoning the best part of Jane Eyre: the ethical struggle.
Here are just a few of the problems:
- The book was set in the 1960s, but the book didn’t seem to break free of the early 1800s. Gemma goes to a ratty orphanage just like Jane did, where the girls are called by their last names, and where she’s required to work as a servant to earn her keep. Some things are definitely 1960s: there are vague references to the Labour Party, and Gemma speaks on the telephone and occasionally wears trousers. But the feel of the book was still old-fashioned, Victorian. Mr. Sinclair (the reincarnated Mr. Rochester) still lives in a looming mansion, and although the location is the Scottish highlands instead of Yorkshire, the isolation of the place only serves to reinforce the Victorian overtones. He is inexplicably wealthy and doesn’t work—must be nice.
- Gemma has no faith. Here I am complaining about how the book didn’t get far away enough from the novel, and yet I wished that Gemma’s spiritual journey was as robust as Jane’s, even if she doesn’t come to the same conclusions. Gemma outrightly rejects the Christianity of her beloved uncle—which is interesting, since she otherwise admires him and treasures everything about him. Gemma is helped by a pastor during her flight, and she finds sanctuary in a church. Yet she stubbornly insists that “Virtue is its own reward.” This idea is never fully explained; we never learn why exactly Gemma is so repulsed by Christianity, and why she insists on doing virtuous things without any underlying motivation.
- Gemma’s crisis is all social and relational, whereas Jane’s crisis was moral and spiritual. Jane had to deal with the fact that the man she loved had tried to commit bigotry, and she must then face the choice of becoming Mr. Rochester’s mistress and committing a grievous sin herself. In that situation, running away with no warning doesn’t seem all that farfetched. What makes Jane such a strong character is her integrity, her decision to stay true to what she believes is right despite her desperate love for Mr. Rochester. In comparison, Gemma comes across as a pouty brat. In the 1960s, if you’re just upset that the man you love did something you disagree with, running away with no warning is a little less understandable. So what did Mr. Sinclair do that was so bad? Honestly, I’m not sure. This is another problem of the book. Mr. Sinclair is afraid of the dark, but during WWII he was assigned to the mines, so he persuades his cousin Seamus to switch names with him and take his assignment for him while Mr. Sinclair goes off to do the fighting. In return, Mr. Sinclair tries to get his sister Alison to marry Seamus—which doesn’t happen, and Seamus is angry about it. The child whom Gemma nannies is Alison’s daughter, of unknown patronage. That’s it. Gemma throws a fit, runs out of their wedding, and dramatically leaves him because of this (and I’m still not even sure what “this” is). Mr. Sinclair says, “Please, Gemma…It’s not as if I have another wife, or a mistress, or a child. I did something wrong when I was eighteen.” I have to agree with him. In order for the rest of the book to be justified, Ms. Livesey needed to find an equally shocking moral dilemma to place Gemma in.
- Along the same lines, Jane Eyre not only has integrity, which drives her story; she also believes in “signs, presentiments, and sympathies.” The chestnut tree that is struck by lightning, the fire and ice motif, the mystical experience of hearing Mr. Rochester’s voice—these are very real for Jane. Gemma, however, being a very decidedly and outspokenly “practical” person (as if signs, presentiments, and sympathies can’t also be practical), isn’t able to make use of any of this rich symbolism that Jane Eyre offers. While traveling in Iceland, she does seem to hear Mr. Sinclair’s voice calling to her, but because of Gemma’s insistence that she does not believe in the supernatural, this scene comes across as forced and unbelievable—like most of the book.
Essentially, I think that Margot Livesey just tried to reinvent the facts of Jane Eyre while leaving out the most important part: the underlying themes and motivations. Jane is nothing without her integrity; therefore, a character with unreliable integrity such as Gemma just doesn’t work. Mr. Rochester presents a huge spiritual dilemma. He manages to be both endearing and frustrating. Mr. Sinclair only gathers the reader’s compassion, which makes Gemma even less likable for running away from him.
I understand the challenge of trying to recreate Jane Eyre. I tried for a long time to figure out how to do it as National Novel Writing Month project, but I couldn’t. Yes, you can twist the facts, but I just couldn’t settle on a moral dilemma that worked in a more modern setting. Not that we don’t have plenty of moral dilemmas today—we do, but they don’t seem to put a romantic relationship in jeopardy. It seems that, as a culture, we try to protect our sexual freedom by making everything acceptable. That’s nice for real life, but it makes it hard to rewrite Jane. Of course, if you can prove me wrong, please do.
I wish I could recommend this book, but I think you’d be better off with something that actually involves an ethical challenge—what’s really at the heart of Jane Eyre.