In light of all the recent Jane Austen rewrites, sequels, and zombifications, I must say it felt good to pick up a novel that rewrote someone else’s story. In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre sheds her long skirts for a cautiously rebellious pair of trousers. Set in 1960s Scotland, Margot Livesey’s latest novel asks whether a story like Jane Eyre’s could happen in the twentieth century. Can stepmothers still be cruel? Can boarding schools still abuse their charity wards? Can a solemn man still rescue a bedraggled woman from dying in the cold rain? To almost all such questions a Brontë devotee might pose, Livesey answers in the affirmative. Though names change, readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice innumerable allusions to Brontë’s classic novel. In fact, spying these references and puzzling out the reasoning behind Livesey’s plot and character changes are some of reading the novel’s greatest delights. Those who have not read Jane Eyre will find other pleasures, as Flight does not rely only on Brontë familiarity. (Though they are of course advised to remedy their Eyre deprivation immediately.)
After the death of her kindly uncle, orphaned Gemma is left with no one but her uncle’s wife, who, like all proper stepmother-figures, hates the sight of her. Abused by her aunt and cousins, Gemma’s life only becomes more difficult when she enters a harsh boarding school, Claypool, as a “working girl.” Claypool is the sort of place that spews grayness into everything and everyone in its vicinity. Despite her lowly position, Gemma discovers a friend, becomes enamored of Latin declensions, and looks confidently toward an independent future.
But even when this little bird leaves her sparse nest, she still has much to learn beyond flying. Walking along a cliff with her enigmatic first employer, Gemma struggles to define the boundaries of companionship and love:
“Do you know,” he said, “that there are people who can’t go near high places not because they’re afraid of heights but because they feel such a lure to jump?” […]
I wanted to tell him all the things I was afraid of: forgetting my uncle, being confined in a small, dark place, leaving Blackbird Hall, not going to university, being cursed, his departure. Instead I said, “So do they believe they can fly, like Peter Pan?”
Livesey clearly revels in the many metaphors suggested by the novel’s title. Yet in Flight Gemma must also learn — like the people drawn to jump — when not to fly away.
As a child, Gemma seeks solace in memories of the dead whose guiding phantasms leave traces of Brontë’s famed Gothic style in the novel. Otherwise, Flight resists the Gothic tropes on which Jane Eyre relies. Livesey’s retelling stresses plausibility, but characters’ emotional responses remain relatively unchanged between versions, which occasionally leads the characters of Flight to inexplicably melodramatic outbursts. Livesey takes some of the fire out of Brontë’s novel without fully justifying her milder, more sentimental take.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy portrays the cultural shift of the 1960s with clear, comfortable prose. Pants, airplanes, radio hits, and university entrance exams all illustrate a world that forces Gemma to stop falling into the past and instead to look forward. Though Livesey may borrow many of her plot elements, her setting is vivid and her characters are the sort to which you can’t help but become attached. Turning the pages is as natural as wanting to know the next part of your friend’s story, even if it’s a familiar one.
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