The Flight of Gemma Hardy , by Margot Livesey. Publisher: Harper Collins (January, 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover, 464 pp.
My mind was as grey and empty as the sky. Everything I wanted—love, a slice of toast, a warm bed, a job, my suitcase—was far, far out of reach.
When a writer decides to re-imagine or update one of the most beloved novels ever – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte—she’d best possess a solid plan and be a quality writer. Margot Livesey, writer in residence at Emerson College, wrote The House on Fortune Street, Homework and Eva Moves the Furniture among other novels. Livesey sets the story of Gemma Hardy in mid-twentieth century Scotland. This enables Gemma to be much more outspoken and bold and aware of the possibilities despite her present station. Like Jane Eyre, Gemma Hardy faces many challenges throughout her early life before ending up as an Au Pair for a wealthy man’s niece on his country estate while he works in London. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is not nearly as gothic and dark as Jane Eyre.
Although born in Scotland, Gemma’s parents [her Scottish mother and Icelandic father] brought her back to Iceland where both parents met tragic deaths while Gemma was still at pre-school age. She finds herself in Scotland with her uncle, her mother’s brother, and his wife, two daughters and son. When her uncle dies, she’s made to feel like a servant and then shipped off to a boarding school as a working student. There she works long hours studying as much as she can and also doing kitchen duties among other chores. It’s quite miserable but Gemma prevails. She’s then hired by the mysterious and brooding Mr. Sinclair to be an au pair to his niece in an estate on the Orkney Islands.
Gemma makes mistakes and quick judgments based on her emotions, youth and inexperience. She and Mr. Sinclair fall for each other. This develops quickly and without the passion and conviction to make the reader feel that this pair aches when apart from each other. In Jane Eyre, the connection between Mr. Rochester and Jane simmers off the pages. Similar to Mr. Rochester, Mr. Sinclair reveals a secret to Gemma and it’s a confounding one. That’s it? I thought. Enough to send the girl running. Another surprise– everywhere Gemma goes someone helps her in an easy, trusting manner.
While a lengthy novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is not a demanding read. For the most part, I enjoyed reading about Gemma’s journey. She’s spirited and plucky and fearless. She values education and understands its necessity to advance in the world. Gemma remains open to learning about new places and ideas. She becomes very interested in her parents’ Iceland. So while some aspects of this updated version of Jane Eyre might fall short, it proves to be an engaging read with appealing character development.