I forget where I first heard about this book, but I remember reading that it was a modern Jane Eyre story, and then there was no way I couldn’t read it, for better or worse. I knew in advance that it couldn’t possibly compare, so in that respect, it had nothing to lose.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy follows the major plot points of Jane Eyre almost exactly, from the abusive upbringing, to the bitter school life, to the enigmatic older employer. The first major difference here is setting– the book takes place in 1950s Scotland, and Livesey strikes a really nice balance here: the updated setting makes certain scenarios more accessible to modern readers who don’t regularly steep themselves in 19th century literature (although I personally have no idea who those people might be or what it is they find to fill their lives), while somehow maintaining a romantic far-off quality that I found appealing. It also allows for franker depictions of passion and sex, and these scenes are written with a careful hand, without interrupting the book’s tone or focus.
Many people I know who’ve read Jane Eyre have been put off by the hundred or so pages after Jane discovers Rochester’s secret. Apparently, some readers find this section of the book to be somewhat boring. While I don’t agree with this assessment of Jane Eyre’s third quarter, I think it does apply to some extent here. The characters in this section of the book are roughly drawn and strangely flat, especially the St. John representative, who should really be made of more potent stuff in order to serve as a foil for Gemma’s development.
Mr. Sinclair, Gemma’s love interest, is also a less-compelling character than his prototype, but I found myself not minding so much. Part of my enjoyment of Gemma Hardy was seeing how it was not just a retread of the plot, but an interpretation of the thematic emphases of Jane Eyre. I’ve complained elsewhere about my frustration with the film industry’s insistence on reducing Jane Eyre to a love story, but Livesey does not make this mistake. She puts Gemma’s development front and center, and Mr. Sinclair serves as a background figure. I was happy with this decision. I was much more interested in seeing how the independent and principled Gemma, who fears she may be inherently unlovable, would go about reconciling her notions of herself with her experiences of new people and places.
Though I realize I’ve spent most of my review comparing the book to Jane Eyre, I suppose my point is that, despite the plot similarities, they really don’t have very much in common. The older classic, with its epic-scale romance and revolutionary claims about women, society, and marriage, serves as a jumping-off point for the new book. Livesey’s book, in contrast, is small and personal, and does not reach deeply into any part of its reader. While it has nothing to expand its reach beyond the scope of its roughly 400 pages, The Flight of Gemma Hardy fills out those pages well.