REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Dear Ms. Livesey,
The cover song has always occupied a precarious position in the annals of music lovers. On the one hand, it is quite a safe thing to do—cover someone else’s song. One already knows that it is beloved. One already knows what sort of person might like that song. It has a brand, a mark, a name already stamped upon it. You, as the musician, can rely on people’s nostalgia to bring to the song you are playing emotions you might not be guaranteed to evoke through your own work. If you are a really excellent musician, you may even bring to the original song something that wasn’t there before. You may make it better. You may, like Jeff Buckley singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” create an entirely new song.
But there is also a risk in covering a song, especially a beloved song. You may just make people wish they were listening to the original. You may just make people sad that they never got to see the Beatles the first time around. You may expose your own mediocrity by attempting a song that is beyond your abilities. You may, like a cover band at a wedding, make people’s skin crawl with your rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Yes, the cover song is a dangerous thing to do.
So, too, are books that re-tell classic works of literature. There’s something both naive and arrogant in supposing you, as an author, can say something more interesting about, for example, Lolita, than Nabokov did. It’s rather an act of hubris, isn’t it? Of course, when it is done well . . . but there’s the rub. You’ve got to do it well. And if you don’t? There’s a lot more to lose.
In the book description on Amazon.com, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is called a “captivating homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre” which is rather misleading. Homage? Is that the word to use? I would not describe this book as an homage to Jane Eyre. No, that book would be Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This book is Jane Eyre—Jane Eyre dressed in the slacks and cardigans of the 1960’s, Jane Eyre missing all its teeth and replacing them with wooden dentures—but Jane Eyre, nonetheless. There are, of course, differences. But those differences are in the details rather than the plot structure, the themes, or the characters. The differences are either superficial, amounting to just mere costume changes, or they are substantial in such a way as to make the plot simultaneously absurd and dull. This is, in my opinion, merely a bad cover version of Jane Eyre.
The book is divided into five parts roughly corresponding with the parts in Jane Eyre. The first two sections focus on Gemma’s childhood, the loss of her only friend Miriam, and her years at Claypoole School. The third section focuses on her time as a nanny to a young girl, the niece of a wealthy banker and landowner, Mr. Sinclair on the Orkney Islands. Part four focuses on her flight from Mr. Sinclair upon learning his secret and Gemma’s recovery of herself during that time period. The last part focuses on the discovery of the remaining family she never knew she had—a family that lives in Iceland—and her eventual return to Mr. Sinclair.
Gemma Hardy is an orphan. Her beloved Uncle has died leaving her in the care of an aunt who, she is coming to realize, hates her. When the village doctor suggests that perhaps she might be better off at school, she sees this as her chance to escape the increasing misery and grief that seems to be her lot at Yew House. Much like the titular character of the book upon which this novel is based, Gemma finds that school is not at all what she expected. Claypoole is a school with an inordinate number of scholarship girls, but they are not there to learn. They are there to earn their keep. Gemma finds no solace at Claypoole but she does find a kind of freedom. When the school closes, she takes a position as a nanny for the Sinclairs in the Orkney Islands. It is there she meets the handsome, brusque Mr. Sinclair and promptly falls head over heels in love with him. But Mr. Sinclair has a secret that seems to be connected to the steward, Seamus Sinclair. Despite this, Gemma feels as if she has finally come home. But this feeling is shattered when, on her wedding day, a secret from the past is revealed and forces Gemma to find her own way in the world.
So, ya know, like I said, it is pretty much Jane Eyre. The names have been changed, but the problems are real, as they used to say on Mathnet part of Square One.
And the book is problematic. It wants to retain all the elements of the original whilst modernizing the plot. What this means is that Ms. Livesey has to jump through some very difficult hoops in order to sustain the original plot structure. Her decision to set the story in the 1960’s makes certain elements of Jane Eyre nearly impossible to deploy with any kind of verisimilitude or believability. I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it is a fact that orphaned young women in the 1960’s had advantages and opportunities that orphaned young women in the 1840’s simply did not possess. I hope that we can all agree that this is the case. It certainly seems like it ought to be the case. I suppose it is important that as a reader I certainly felt it ought to be the case. Getting a job in the 1960’s, even without references, wasn’t nearly as difficult as getting a job in the 1840’s, surely? But in order to give to Gemma the kind of isolation and alienation that is the hallmark of Jane’s character, Livesey has to do a lot of work in order to make that come off in the setting she has chosen
We see this problem first on the announcement that Claypoole School is closing due to financial difficulties. As such, Gemma finds that her dreams of university are unlikely to manifest themselves. She must find other employment until such a time as she can gain entry into a university. On the advice of a professor she takes a job as nanny. Well this seems all fine and dandy. I accept this. I find this believable. However, it makes her about 18 years old when she meets Mr. Sinclair (42!), which granted is about the same age Jane was when she met Mr. Rochester but 18 in 1966 seems a hell of a lot younger than 18 in 1846. Also, there is no reason that Mr. Sinclair should be that old except for the fact that the author needs to have had him fight in WWII. It all seems so forced, this plot. Where Jane’s involvement with Rochester is rife with inequalities (age, class, education), these differences are superficially dealt with in The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Nor are we given the kinds of conversations between Gemma and Sinclair that occur between Jane and Rochester; conversations that are essential to the establishment of these two people’s connection and love for each other. The age difference between Sinclair feels out of place and anachronistic within the confines of the setting. More importantly, it seems superfluous to the rest of the novel, an unnecessary holdover from the original that doesn’t make any sense in this new book.
Because the fact of the matter is, Gemma has more long term opportunities than Jane did. She still could to University. She can go to University. She could get another kind of a job. She could become a doctor or a lawyer or a spy. Jane Eyre didn’t have those choices. Where Jane comes off as having a valiant integrity—albeit an idealistic and at time impractical integrity—against a society that inexorably attempts to degrade her, Gemma just comes off as spoilt and foolish and unaware of the world around her or the possibilities it has to offer. I could have forgiven the acrobatics Livesey employs to maintain the “homage” to Bronte had they had any emotional weight within the narrative. But they didn’t. A book that I was finding rather innocuous became really annoying to me when Sinclair reveals his great, dark secret.
If you will recall, the great, dark secret of Mr. Rochester is one of the most scandalizing reveals in the history of literature and a large part of that novel’s themes revolve around it. The problem is that it simply does not work in a modern context. Mr. Rochester had very little choice about what to do with his wife. Assuming, as I do, that Bertha had some kind of severe schizophrenia or something then she couldn’t simply be allowed to live in a house like a normal person where she might end up hurting a totally innocent bystander or herself or a servant or something. Nor could he put her in a madhouse. Oh well, Rochester could have but considering the state of madhouses in the 19th century, that seemed a really despicable thing to do. Even Rochester, not known for his upstanding morality, thought it was despicable. I’ve always taken the position that Rochester was doing his best under the circumstances. It’s not like he locked her in the attic and THEN she went crazy. No, he locked her in the attic BECAUSE she went crazy. But even this is an overly simplistic version of the matter.
Bertha’s existence and her insanity bring up a lot of issues in the novel, issues that must be dealt with before the “Reader I married him”. Is Bertha a kind of mirror to Jane? To Rochester? Is she a metaphor for female sexuality? Is Rochester cruel? Is he evil for what he has done to her? For his deception of Jane? Is Jane right to leave him? Does he deserve to be burned in his bed? What does it mean to love the unloveable? Is Bertha any more or less unloveable than Jane feels herself to be? What is forgiveness? What is atonement? How do these relate to things like class and gender and money and sex and death and God? I could go on. In short, the revelation of Bertha in the attic is pivotal to the religious, ethical, and existential questions that weave throughout the book. If you take away the particular of that revelation and replace it with something else, that something else should perform as powerful and visceral a problem to the characters and to the reader as the original revelation. You know, if you are writing an homage and all that.
Spoiler alert: I will in the following paragraphs reveal Mr. Sinclair’s secret.
No. That’s it.
Gemma gets her knickers in a twist, decides she can’t trust Sinclair anymore, etc. etc. just as Jane does. Only this seemed a rather tame secret in comparison to having a mad wife in the attic. And Sinclair wasn’t going to commit fraud or bigamy or anything by marrying Gemma. All in all, the whole thing seemed like a rather unfortunate incident. Even at 18, naïve and arrogant as I was, I would not have considered this to be a big, fucking deal. That Gemma does is baffling to me as a reader. I was expecting something like murder or an actual exchange of identities, like Hugh Sinclair really was Seamus Sinclair. It could have been incest, or God anything that would have a force like the original.
The question I came away with is this: if one is going to re-tell a story, or re-imagine a famous work of literature, a famous song, a famous painting—what does your version of this other story offer the reader? What makes your version of this story interesting or different? What does it add to the original? How does it converse with original? What does it leave out and why? What does it focus on and why?
It seems to me that The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a book that didn’t bother to ask these questions. It simply regurgitates the original story into a different time period without asking any significant questions either of the narrative or through the narrative. This might suggest that this book is badly written. But it isn’t and I struggled with it because of that. In fact, it is quite well-written. The prose is clean and smooth; the setting is detailed in such a way as to paint a picture in your mind’s eye; the characters, both primary and secondary, are complex, well-drawn and interesting; it is what I would call a well-crafted novel. Yet, even as I recognize the craft that went into writing this novel, it lacked a vital spark. I recognize this is a vague criticism. It is not helpful to the author. But readers will know what I mean when I say: This book had no breath. I slide through it with all the ease and expediency of a drive-thru, and I drank it with the same unthinking speed as a chocolate milkshake. It was, in short, forgettable, flavorless, and fast. More so, because it only made me think with regret of the book I’d rather be reading, Jane Eyre.
As such, despite the skill with which this novel is written, I must give a C- for being one of, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, “the sad imitations that got it so wrong.”
P.S. To those interested, the incredible video to Pulp’s “Bad Cover Version” can be found here.