12 February 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Hmm, another Jane Eyre retelling.  But this one is by Margot Livesey, a writer I've heard of but never read.

In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, the setting is updated to 1960s Britain.  Since the death of her widowed father young Gemma, born on Iceland, has been raised by her Scottish maternal uncle, a loving man, and his snobbish, resentful wife. When her uncle dies, her aunt treats her as an unwanted burden.  Gemma is a smart, resourceful child and wins a scholarship to Claypoole, a girls' school she thinks will be her path to University and a better life.  However, at Claypoole, she is treated little better than a scullery maid due to her status as a charity pupil. 

Claypoole slowly goes bankrupt.  Trying to keep her dreams of University alive, Gemma gains the position of nanny on a remote Orkeny Islands estate.  Mr. Hugh Sinclair is a London businessman with a mysterious past.  Gemma and Mr. Sinclair start spending more time with one another and, like her pattern-card, Gemma falls in love with her employer.  There is an interrupted wedding, a trek across England, a revelation, and a trip to Iceland.

I very much liked Livesey's writing style, so I will definitely check out her other novels.  At times the novel seemed to lock-step with Jane Eyre - the timeline was very precise so I found myself anticipating certain events.  But the update to the 1960s was quite good, capturing the last gasp of the era of charity pupils treated as servants in a rapidly evolving post-war Britain. 

Compared to a previous Jane Eyre retelling (Jane by April Lindner) that I read last year, I have to give Livesey many extra points for deviating from the original narrative at the point of the wedding.  She dispenses with the madwoman-in-the-attic/Rochester-is-already-married-plot - good, because that's the major element that doesn't translate to realistic modern fiction.  I didn't quite understand Sinclair's "secret" but I think it had more to do with the fact that he wasn't very truthful with Gemma or the world in general.  And Gemma, being conditioned to run from that distrust, flees.

There are characters who stand-in for the Rivers family but I appreciated how they weren't Gemma's real family.  In another deviation from the original, Gemma is helped to return to Iceland to find the remaining bits of her father's family that still live there.

I may have had too high a set of expectations from this novel, but I did like what Livesey did with it in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment