Loosely based on Charlotte Brontë’s beloved classic Jane Eyre, the newest gem from acclaimed novelist Margot Livesey follows the trials of a determined young orphan as she searches to find her place in the world.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy is every bit as enchanting as Livesey’s previous novels, including the 2009 award winner The House on Fortune Street. Still, one has to wonder why any author—let alone one as critically and commercially successful in her own right as Livesey—would choose to re-imagine Brontë’s archetypal character in a 20th-century setting.
“I hope the novel is sufficiently richly imagined that it’s its own thing.”
“I’ve asked myself that question 417 times while I’ve been working on this book,” Livesey replies with laughter during an interview from her home near Boston, where she teaches writing at Emerson College. Funny and frank, with a lilting Scottish accent, Livesey admits to some nervousness about how her new novel will be received.
“I hope entering into the book or enjoying it does not depend on having read Jane Eyre or knowing Jane Eyre,” she says. “I hope the novel is sufficiently richly imagined that it’s its own thing. I didn’t want to write a novel that excluded any readers or made anyone feel they had to be brainy in a sort of annoying way.”
Born in 1948, Gemma Hardy is orphaned as a toddler after her mother dies in a freak accident and her father drowns. She is taken in by her uncle, a kind and well-educated minister, and his family in Scotland. After her uncle dies, Gemma is left alone with her indifferent cousins and cruel aunt, who resents the time her husband dedicated to his orphaned niece. When Gemma suffers a panic attack while locked in a closet as punishment for fighting with her cousin, a local doctor takes notice of her abusive situation.
At the age of nine, Gemma is shipped off to a faltering boarding school, Claypoole, where she’ll earn her way by cooking and cleaning. Plain but smart, she is self-reliant and confident she’ll make her way in the world (much like a certain Brontë heroine).
“Well, Gemma, we’ve reached the parting of the ways,” her aunt tells her as she drops her at the train station to travel alone to Claypoole. “You’re an ugly child—my poor sister-in-law was a plain Jane—but I hope you’ll study hard at Claypoole and be a credit to me.”
“I’ll always try to be a credit to my uncle,” Gemma retorts, “but you’ve treated me like a leper. If I win every prize in the school it won’t be because of you.”
Gemma struggles through her years as a “working girl” at Claypoole, dodging school bullies and trying to get a decent education in between mopping floors and serving meals to the paying students. When the struggling school finally closes, she takes a job as a nanny in the Orkneys, a cluster of islands in northern Scotland. It is there that Gemma’s life begins in earnest. She is drawn to the wealthy owner of the home in which she lives, but slips away to Iceland to search for her roots.
Certainly the pristine writing evokes the moody, misty feel of Brontë, and the plotlines are undeniably similar. But Livesey needn’t worry about how her tale compares to Jane Eyre. In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Livesey has created a character fully her own; her novel is more of an homage than a faithful retelling.
“I really felt more like writing back to Charlotte Brontë,” Livesey says.
Her inspiration for the book came, oddly enough, during an appearance at a book club, during which the group began talking about Jane Eyre. “Some of the best discussions and most illuminating moments I’ve had have been at book clubs,” she says. She decided to write a modern version of the book—or, at least, modern compared with the original Victorian setting.
“If she came of age when the Pill was available and women’s rights were a topic of discussion, it would really change the novel and what I was trying to do,” she explains of her decision to set Gemma Hardy in the early 1960s. Livesey aimed to write a story about a girl determined to find a place in a world with few choices for a female of her status.
Once she began writing, Livesey had no difficulty imagining a crumbling Scottish boarding school. As a girl, she herself was enrolled in one as a day student. Her father taught at the neighboring boys’ school and her mother was the school nurse.
“I ended up in a class with girls three years older than me. It was just an enormous gulf,” the author recalls. “There were long, dark corridors, cloakrooms and stairwells. I was always hiding in some stairway trying to avoid some particularly hefty girl.”
The school eventually went bankrupt. “It was one time I felt my prayers were answered,” she says, laughing at the memory.
After graduating from the University of York, Livesey moved to Canada in the 1970s to be nearer to a love interest, and took a series of odd jobs.
“I discovered this amazing thing called creative writing and even more amazing was that I was qualified to teach it,” she says. “That changed my life in a more radical way than romance. It tied me to North America more than, say, waitressing or working at a dry cleaners.”
The places at which she’s since taught reads like a high school counselor’s dream list: Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts University and Williams College. Yet she’s still found time to write a handful of compelling novels that have earned her a loyal following and the 2009 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award.
“I write novels that have what I so admired growing up: a strong plot and vivid characters and an exploration of moral questions, although that sounds incredibly pompous and dreary,” Livesey says. “Maybe there’s a way to better say it that is fun.”
She plans to celebrate finishing Gemma Hardy by traveling to the Brontë family home in England, which, ironically, she never visited while studying at the University of York.
“I’m ashamed to say as an under-grad I was too absorbed in the emergency of self,” she says wryly. “I didn’t have time for a literary pilgrimage!”
The Flight of Gemma Hardy is the beautifully melancholic and wholly transporting story of one courageous girl searching for her place in a changing world. And now that it’s finished, Livesey may even re-read the novel that inspired it.
“I never read Jane Eyre once I started my book,” she admits. “I thought, if I do, I’ll just throw down my pen.”